The surprises began as soon as we arrived in Pittsburg, the northern tip of the Granite State. To be more accurate, the surprises began about an hour before our arrival.
“Is that snow on the ground?” I asked as we drove through the darkness.
The headlights revealed that, indeed, a thin layer of snow blanketed the sides of the roads. We arrived at our rented cabin to find about 2 inches of snow in the Great North Woods.
Snow in early November in northern New Hampshire is not surprising, but this particular snow caught me off guard because of how warm it has been in southern New England. Wasn’t it just 70 degrees the week before?
Although it served as a reminder that winter is coming fast for all of the region, the snow was a welcome gift from the North Country. It was beautiful and, thankfully, already cleared off the roads.
The next day we woke up early and ventured into the woods to see what birds and wildlife we could find. It was grouse and deer season, so we wore blaze orange hats and vests.
The sightings at first were few and far between. The first trail we tackled was through perfect moose habitat, but we hardly saw signs of the iconic animal. A pile or two of moose droppings was the only evidence that they were still nearby.
The moose population in New Hampshire has been devastated by winter ticks in the northern part of the state and brainworm in the south, Fish and Wildlife biologists believe. Studies are ongoing to confirm and, hopefully, find solutions.
The bird life was quiet until we came across a trio of particularly bold gray jays. One landed on our car and I pulled out my cellphone to grab a quick photo. As I held the phone to zoom in on the subject, another jay landed on the phone.
I fished out some sunflower seeds and we hand-fed the bold and beautiful birds for about 15 minutes. It was more entertaining and memorable than any screen time.
We moved on from that spot and, within the hour, came across two more eager gray jays. We fed these birds for a bit and continued on our walk.
The sightings remained few until we came to a clearing in the woods that provided us with a nice flurry of bird activity.
The gray jays were joined by a small flock of black-capped chickadees (no boreal chickadees among them), a few red-breasted nuthatches, a bald eagle flyover, and an evening grosbeak. It was the first evening grosbeak I had seen in years. It landed in a nearby tree and was gone by the time I could get the camera out.
The lakes and ponds were mostly void of waterfowl. One pond, just north of Deer Mountain Campground, had a few female hooded mergansers. A pair of female bufflehead swam on East Inlet and three common mergansers were on First Connecticut Lake.
I’ve been visiting the Great North Woods for nearly 25 years now and the dwindling moose population is obvious and concerning. N.H. Fish and Wildlife estimates that the population in the state peaked at about 7,500 in the mid-1990s. It is now estimated that there are fewer than 4,000.
Northern New Hampshire is still a great place to visit and you can’t beat the boreal forest for its interesting wildlife. Without moose, however, something is missing. Something big.