A poor cone crop in Canada this year is driving crossbills south of the border in search of food.
As volunteers fan out across the state for the annual Christmas Bird Count, they’re likely to see two noteworthy species down from the north this year. Both are named "Crossbills" for unique bills that actually do cross, all the better to pry seeds from a conifer cone.
Taxonomy is the attempt to place all plant and animal species in a logical order based on relationship. Two thousand years ago. Aristotle classified birds by appearance and behavior, such as birds that swim, birds of prey, and birds that sing.
Once a common species in California and across North America, the Western burrowing owl has become a rarer and rarer sight over the last three decades given habitat loss and other environmental perils the bird faces.
November's gray skies carry the last of the migrating Canada geese, graceful ribbons of true wild Canadians on a long-distance flight. These aren't the New England locals, flying low from golf course to cornfield.
The northerners are vocal in flight. Geese are highly social, vocal year-round as they maintain relationships both within the family grouping and the greater flock. Vocalizing by young begins within the egg before hatching, and helps build a strong family bond that lasts a full year.
Generations ago, when people lived closer to the natural world, more outdoors than in, mild October days were called "bluebird weather. "The eastern bluebirds' gentle, quizzical notes were familiar and their distinctive habits recognized. A bluebird family remains together this time of year when most other bird species disperse. They favor field or open habitat, and typically perch on branches at field edge when they feed. Family members take turns dropping down to the ground then return to perch, one after another, most likely in pursuit of grasshopper or cricket.
The bird world quiets down by late summer - but not the American goldfinch, one of the most common backyard birds. September brings the chatter of young goldfinches as they follow their male parent. They beg noisily, perched with head thrown back and trembling wings.
Most songbirds switch their diet to high-protein insects when feeding their young, and they nest earlier when insects are most bountiful. For example, chickadees that keep bird-feeders busy in winter disappear in summer as they forage for insects not birdseed.
Once again, it's broad-winged hawk migration time. Whirpools of hawks soon will fill the sky, riding high on thermal lift as sun warms earth. When lift plays out they stream south in an orderly, and countable, procession.
New Hampshire Audubon does just that - count the hawks - at Carter Hill Orchard in Concord and atop Pack Monadnock at Miller State Park in Peterborough.
Here's what Henry Walters, the official counter at Pack Monadnock, wrote two years ago on September 18:
The Bicknell’s thrush is a migratory songbird that winters in the Caribbean but comes to northern New England to breed.
It's long been hard to find in the region – and conservationists say that’s becoming a big problem. In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week it’s considering the Bicknell’s thrush for endangered species status.
In mid-August, one of the most elegant and least known migration flights begins. Common nighthawks, a long-distance migrant, are one of the earliest to depart their northern breeding grounds. Despite their species name, they aren't hawks and they aren't nocturnal. And, alas, they no longer are common. Nighthawks are crepuscular, a great word for the handful of species that are most active at dawn and dusk.
There's a newcomer in New Hampshire, a bird that's wild and prehistoric in looks and sound. The bugling of sandhill cranes is common in Wisconsin and Michigan where their numbers have rebounded from near eradication some 70 years ago. That rebound—from the low hundreds to over 50,000 today—has likely led to a range expansion eastward to New England. There's 11 known pairs breeding in Maine, and a few in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York. Surely New Hampshire is next.
Mid-May is like rush hour in the bird world. Migrants have returned for the nesting season and the air is full of birdsong. As you might guess, birdsong is as varied as birds themselves. In fact, birdsong is defined generously to include any and all sounds they make with territorial or courtship intentions. Let's start with a traditional vocalization and then branch out.
May brings apple blossoms, a universal favorite—whether in hillside orchard or backyard crabapple. They're also favored by one of the most elegant songbirds of all, cedar waxwings. They're a social species but sedate and quiet as birds go—easy to miss despite traveling in flocks.
Often the best way to know they're around is by their song. It's subtle, admittedly, but worth learning. Once alerted by their song, here's what you might see: male and female waxwings exchange blossoms bill-to-bill as part of a courtship ritual when winter flocks pair off for the breeding season ahead.
Summer visitors to New Hampshire typically are eager to hear the call of a common loon, emblem of the wild and remote north woods. Popular souvenirs to take home include coffee mugs, sweatshirts and jewelry—all with a loon motif.
In addition to their striking appearance, I suspect the fact that loons chorus at night adds greatly to their mystique. Loons of winter don't get much attention, but scan coastal waters and chances are good you'll see a loon or two offshore. New Hampshire's breeding loons don't migrate far.
New Hampshire Audubon's annual Backyard Winter Bird Survey is coming up: the second weekend each February.
Three woodpeckers common statewide are among the early birds when it comes to loudly proclaiming territory and courtship. Lend an ear this time of year and you'll hear the rapid-fire drumming of powerful bills on resonant deadwood. Vocally challenged, woodpeckers drum while most other backyard birds sing.