For the Birds: Thankful for a lone moose sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cow moose and a calf eat aquatic vegetation from a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

It’s going on 30 years that I have been making frequent trips to the northern tip of New Hampshire to look for moose and other wildlife. Thirty years? Hard to believe.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the Great North Woods over the decades, some positive and some negative. Granted, the trips have become less frequent lately, but I still try to make it up at least once a year.

A positive I have noticed is an increase in loon and bald eagle sightings. Both those species have bounced back from low population numbers and now seem to be doing much better. That is thanks in large part to groups like the Loon Preservation Committee, which is based in Moultonborough.

The biggest negative, by far, is the precipitous decline in the moose population. It used to be that a drive along Route 3 in Pittsburg, especially if timed properly, would yield three or four moose sightings easily. Now the sightings along that stretch of road have pretty much dwindled to zero. Your timing needs to be just right and that needs to be coupled with a tremendous amount of luck. The other moose hotspots off the beaten path are ice cold these days as well.

New Hampshire’s moose population was estimated to be about 7,500 in the 1990s. Now it estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000 but the population has appeared to have stabilized over the last few years, according to N.H. Fish and Game.

Biologists say a combination of factors has led to this decline. The most significant factor is the burgeoning winter tick population. These ticks feast on moose throughout the winter and leave the magnificent animals completely depleted. How can a few ticks bring down an 800-pound animal? Well, it’s more than a few ticks. It’s more like tens of thousands of ticks on a single moose.

Warmer and later starting winters have contributed to the tick’s out of control boom, to the detriment of our beloved moose.

I took a trip up to the magnificent Great North Woods last week and was fortunate enough to have a moose sighting. It was a cow moose with two calves. Hopefully these twins are a good sign that perhaps the moose are indeed stabilizing and even reversing this awful trend that has cut their population in half. Anecdotally, I’m not sure I fully believe that as that was my only moose sighting in four days, but I’ve always been one to hope for the best.

As I mentioned before, loons and eagles were numerous. Even smaller ponds that never used to hold loons play host to this most iconic symbol of the northern forest.

Interesting in their absence were ospreys. Many years ago, I would see several ospreys either in Pittsburg or Lake Umbagog. This year, even though I visited both places, I didn’t see a single osprey. The osprey population has rebounded tremendously over the last 20 years, so I’m not worried about the lack of sightings I experienced. I’m guessing it was just poor luck on my part.

I did see plenty of ruffed grouse, but the spruce grouse eluded me once again. There are interpretive signs all over the woods up there and all the books and magazines say that spruce grouse are up there, but in my 30 years of visiting, I have seen a grand total of zero. It’s not for lack of trying as I walked over 30 miles through prime spruce grouse habitat in the four days I was up there.

Maybe next time I will be in the right place. Hopefully next time there will be more moose sightings as well. Until then, I will enjoy the memory of this latest moose sighting and continue to follow the news about what’s going on with New England’s moose.

A few more from the Great North Woods

Photo by Chris Bosak A fritillary feeds on a thistle bloom in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

I always get lots of mileage out of my trips to northern New England. Here are a few more shots from my recent trip up north.

Photo by Chris Bosak An American toad blends in with the environment in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A great blue heron flies over a lake in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak An American toad blends in with the environment in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

For the Birds: Whole-bird approach to birdwatching

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray catbird perches on a branch in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

Look up “wood duck” in a cheap field guide and you’ll likely see a beautiful duck with green, pewter, tan, white and even some blue plumage. That is, indeed, a wood duck — a male wood duck in its breeding plumage.

If you saw a female wood duck, immature wood duck or male wood duck in its non-breeding plumage, you’d never find it in that field guide and you’d have a hard time believing someone who told you it was a wood duck because it looks nothing like the beautiful bird in the field guide.

Sometimes field guides lie. Well, they leave out a lot of the truth at least. There are top-quality field guides out there and even they can’t portray every bird in every possible plumage. Between the breeding, non-breeding and transitional plumages, it’s impossible to fit every variation of every bird into a book. That’s not even to mention all the other plumage oddities, such as leucism, albinoism and other conditions.

The same can be said for bird sounds as well. There are dozens of apps and websites out there now that feature bird sounds, but as terrific and helpful as they are, they can’t get every song, call and alarm note of every bird.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was watching a gray catbird in my backyard. I was listening to about nine unique bird sounds that day and at least three were coming from that catbird. Two were coming from a male and female cardinal and a small gang of titmice were making at least two different sounds.

Gray catbirds are so named because of their cat-like calls. It is a very appropriate name for that bird as they indeed sound just like a cat. Sometimes you question whether a cat is lurking in the thick brush or a catbird.

Catbirds also have a warbling, squeaky song, as well as dozens of various other sounds. I can always tell it’s a catbird, though. There is an overall feeling to it that I can recognize because of years of listening to catbirds. It’s kind of like how an American robin makes several different sounds, but they are all “robin-like.”

A few years ago, a different approach to birdwatching emerged. It is one in which birders consider all the aspects of the bird — including size, shape and habits — in order to make an identification. It is called by some the “Whole Bird and More” approach and birdwatchers do not merely rely on the color and general appearance of the bird, which as mentioned before, can be deceptive.

The same principles may be applied to identifying birds by sound as well. Take the aforementioned robin for example. We all know its “cheerup, cheerily, cheerily” song. By knowing the overall feeling and sound of that song, you can identify the robin’s other sounds — such as their “tut, tut, tut” calls — when you hear them. Robins have other songs and calls as well, which can be traced back to the robin using the same principles.

That said, I’m certainly not an expert at identifying birds by sounds. The warblers that fill our treetops in the spring certainly pose a challenge. But when you get to know a certain bird sound well enough, it can carry over into that bird’s other sounds. If you hear the black-capped chickadee’s “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call enough, you also know it’s a chickadee when it sings its “fee bee” song. (Actually, I like to think of that song as “ha ha” and imagine the chickadee laughing.) So, just like the “whole bird” approach may be applied to looking at birds, it may also be applied to listening to birds. Try it next time you’re listening to the birds sing.

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray catbird perches on a branch in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

Yet even more from northern New Hampshire

Photo by Chris Bosak An ebony jewelwing perches on a pine bough in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

Here are a few more photos of my trip to northern New Hampshire (Pittsburg and Lake Umbagog). Yes, there will probably be yet another post or two coming up …

Photo by Chris Bosak A female common yellowthroat perches on a branch in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

As I had mentioned in previous posts, I have been going up to visit the Great North Woods for nearly 30 years now and I’ve never seen so many turkeys as I did on this trip. They were by far my most frequent sighting.

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey leads her brood across a road in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

Not a great photo below, but it was interesting to see red-breasted nuthatches in their breeding territory. In southern New England, these birds are rare winter treats.

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-breasted nuthatch sings from a perch in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A swamp sparrow perches in a branch in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

More from northern New England

Photo by Chris Bosak An American black duck hides in the grasses near a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

Here are a few more shots from northern New England, admittedly not as cool as yesterday’s moose post.

Photo by Chris Bosak A common loon swims in a lake in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A broad-winged hawk perches in a tree in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

A heartening moose sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cow moose and two calves eat aquatic vegetation from a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

People come to the North Country for a lot of reasons: fishing, hunting, endless ATV and snowmobile trails, wildlife watching, etc. Those who are here wildlife watching (and I think I can speak for many people) have moose as their primary target. Unfortunately, the moose population throughout New England has declined dramatically over the last several years. Biologists blame most of the decline on winter ticks, which are thriving in the warmer winters and wreaking havoc on moose.

A fair number of moose remain, which is the good news, but the decline makes it that much harder to find them. Driving along Route 3 in Pittsburg, N.H., for instance, used to be a guarantee for moose sightings. Cars would line up in the evening around the salt licks and wait for the moose to show up. The salt licks are no longer and the remaining moose are scattered throughout the vast forest. It now takes a lot more skill, knowledge and luck to find a moose in northern New Hampshire. Mostly luck.

I was lucky and fortunate enough the other morning to find a moose — three moose, actually, as it was a cow with twin calves. I launched the canoe on a popular pond (fen, really) in Pittsburg, N.H, Monday morning, waited out a heavy rainfall under the cover of evergreens, relaunched after the rain, paddled around a corner and saw the three moose. They were the first moose I had seen in years and I stopped the canoe a good distance from them and admired the scene. I was beyond thrilled to see the moose, of course, but I was equally happy to see the twins. I hope they both grow up to be healthy adults and do not succumb to winter ticks like so many other moose. I hope they are a sign that things are turning around for New England’s moose population. That’s probably being naive, but I can always hope.

That’s been my only moose sighting on this trip north so far. I’ll keep searching.

Photo by Chris Bosak A cow moose and a calf eat aquatic vegetation from a pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

Back to the North Country

Photo by Chris Bosak A common loon swims in a lake in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A bald eagle looks over a lake in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

With work pleading with employees to use vacation time and half (or more) of the country pretty sketchy at the moment, I did what I’ve been wanting to do for years: take another summer vacation to northern New England — specifically northern New Hampshire and the boreal forest.

The trip started in Errol on Lake Umbagog and now continues in Pittsburg, which borders Canada. Here are a few photos I’ve managed so far. More to come — of course.

The main target is moose. New England’s largest mammal, however, is having a rough go of it of late. Here’s why.

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruffed grouse stands near a field in northern New England, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak Pitcher plant at pond in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.
Photo by Chris Bosak A common loon swims in a lake in northern New Hampshire, July 2020.

For the Birds: Complain and they will come

Photo by Chris Bosak A female ruby-throated hummingbird visits a flower in New England, July 2020.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in several New England newspapers …

Apparently, all I had to do to get my hummingbirds back this summer was complain to my neighbor.

I had had frequent visits from both male and female hummingbirds early in the spring. The daily visits continued for a few weeks and then stopped abruptly. Last year, and the year before that, the visits never stopped and I saw them daily until the fall.

This year, June was largely a hummingbird-free month in my backyard. 

During a walk around the neighborhood last week, I noticed a neighbor had bird feeders on her deck so I stopped to chat about what birds she had been seeing. She had a few of the usual suspects but didn’t mention hummingbirds. 

I inquired about the tiny birds and she said: “Yes. I see them every day.”

“That’s great,” I replied. “I haven’t seen mine in a while.”

I went on to bore her with the details of my previous years’ good fortune. She feigned interest, we chatted a little more and then said goodbye. 

The birding gods must have heard me griping and took pity on me because, the very next day, a female hummingbird showed up at my feeder. She has been back every day since, too. It is very territorial as I have seen her chase away other hummingbirds. Another female and a male have started showing up now and then, too, when the queen is away.

In previous years, a female has dominated my feeders throughout the summer so I wonder if she is the same bird I have been seeing for years. At any rate, it is nice to see the hummingbirds back in the yard. It is also nice to know there are several of them, even if I get only brief glimpses of the other ones before they are chased away.

I have a few feeders and several flowers to lure the hummingbirds. She prefers the feeders, but on occasion will sip from the flowers. This year, most of my flowers are red salvia, an annual with tubular shaped blooms. In the past, I’ve seen hummingbirds visit my coneflower and even sunflowers.

Complaining usually doesn’t solve problems and often makes them worse, but in this case, things worked out pretty well. I plan to take a trip to northern New England in a few weeks in the hopes of finding some of New England’s disappearing moose. Maybe I should proactively start complaining now in the hopes of getting the same results for that trip?

Chipping sparrow keeps watch

Photo by Chris Bosak A chipping sparrow perches on a garden stake in New England, July 2020. Merganser Lake.

A Day on Merganser Lake

This chipping sparrow likes to land on one of my garden stakes that supports my snow peas. If only it and its friends would take care of the caterpillars ravaging my Brussels sprouts.