I thought I would write about the year’s birding highlights. Looking back, a hike in July soon pushed all other memories aside.
The hike was in Antrim, along the ridgeline proposed for a 10-turbine wind facility that abuts New Hampshire Audubon’s Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. As an advocate for the sanctuary, I’ve been involved in the lengthy permitting process that’s coming to a close in Concord.
The hike started from the project access point on Route 9 and followed the flagged route up Tuttle Hill and on due south to Willard Mountain. Four miles all in all, with several ups and downs, rough terrain and bushwhacking, it would take two days.
Hikers included neighbors of the project, two wildlife trackers, a forester, and a couple birders.
We stopped a lot for observation. I stopped more times in appreciation of large glacial boulders than I did for birds. July’s birds are quiet, seldom seen or heard as they tend their nests and young.
At times the flagged route was a boulder field – or more accurately a boulder dump – transported and deposited by the glacier’s retreat some 10,000 years ago. Sometimes the Mack-truck-sized boulders were individuals; more often they were clumped.
I remember well wending our way down through a steep boulder field. Different people took different routes as we were looking for wildlife signs. Unlike the upper, sun-baked stretch on Tuttle Hill that had been clear-cut along the access route, we were in deep, lush forest, shaded by the tree canopy high overhead. I remember it as green and sunlight dappled.
I think it was Bruce Hedin who found the red-eyed vireo nest as the steep terrain leveled out. There were four nestlings in the waist-high nest. A photo taken that day shows nestlings a few days old and all mouth, gaping wide and stretching tall, not knowing the difference yet between a camera and a parent delivering a meal.
The scene is fresh in my memory, a highlight of the year but poignantly so.
We came on a second nest along an old woods road on the way down to Gregg Lake and our ride back to Route 9.
A small bird, low and in retreat, gave the alert. Another nest site? Yes. Bruce confirmed an ovenbird nest nestled by a tree trunk. Celebrated for their haunting, ethereal song, ovenbirds are named for the shape of their nest – domed like a beehive oven.
It was the first I’ve ever seen. Another highlight.
Ten minutes farther along, unfamiliar birdsong from trees at trail edge halted our march. I didn’t recognize the jumble of notes but Scott Semmens did: common nighthawk. I know the distinctive nighthawk flight song, similar to a male woodcock’s “peent!” but much less insistent. Scott has volunteered on nighthawk recovery projects and knows their more subtle vocalizations. Common nighthawks are on the state’s endangered species list.
It was another first for me. Not a “life bird,” but a “life song.”
Soon the old woods road joined the logging road used to haul logs down from the Tuttle Hill clear-cut. On we marched, grateful for the gravity assist that downhill gives.
And then we heard the “peent” calls that announce nighthawk presence. It’s been a decade or more since I’ve heard the call of a bird common when I moved to New Hampshire over three decades ago. Looking high, up the steep eastern slope of Tuttle Hill, we saw two nighthawks traversing the sky above, turning sharply as nighthawks do to catch their insect prey.
Another highlight. But poignant, again. The wind turbine site in Lempster, the state’s first big wind project, reported two common nighthawk deaths earlier in the summer, turbine blade mortalities.
Nighthawks nest on rocky, open expanses, and it’s possible that ridges cleared and flattened for industrial wind sites attract nighthawks. Next summer N.H. Audubon will monitor the area as part of its endangered species work.
There are only a handful of known common nighthawk nests in the state.
Another highlight, almost a first, was a “bear nest” high in a beech tree. Bears don’t sleep in bear nests, but they do climb high to feed on beech nuts. They snap off branches to access the nuts and then arrange the branches in what looks like a large nest. The bear nest was near another steep boulder field with flagging through it to indicate the access road route. To haul large equipment, access roads are wide, and all the more so when cut-and-fill is needed on steep terrain.
The Antrim wind project has stirred strong feelings pro and con. A recent application to the state for a project on the Wapack ridge in Temple and New Ipswich will do the same in those towns.
Whether pro or con, I think it’s important we know the costs of any industrial-scale energy producer. They all extract a heavy toll on the natural world.
In inland New Hampshire, big winds blow only on our ridgelines, and more often than not our ridgelines are remote and offer refuge for wildlife. Updrafts along ridgelines also attract migrating hawks that ride those winds.
Whether it’s mountaintop removal in West Virginia or our wild and scenic ridgelines dynamited level, glacial boulders included, we need to know the price we pay.
The push is on to grow the New England power grid in large part because there are no large-scale profits gained by conservation projects.
Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.
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