A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Birdwatching in New Hampshire Quiz

How Well Do You Know Your New Hampshire Birds?

If you want to know how, when and where to find some cool birds, then check out the new book, Birdwatching in New Hampshire, by Eric Masterson of Hancock. 

It’s not a guide to identifying birds – there are plenty of good field guides for that. It’s a masterfully written and illustrated guide to finding the “good birds,” the unusual birds, the hard-to-find rarities that occur in certain places at certain times.

Birds like red-throated loons, which you might spot along the seacoast in the winter. Or spruce grouse that you might see in Pittsburg. Or thousands of broad-winged hawks you can see from Pack Monadnock Mountain.

Masterson shows with clear maps, handy timelines and regional descriptions how you can have a productive birdwatching trip, whether you’re an expert checking off a life-list or an amateur just wanting to see some amazing birds. A read through his book will also give you a greater appreciation for the birds that visit or spend their lives in New Hampshire. Some of our seasonal birds, for instance, travel thousands of miles on their journeys, sometimes spending a day here or months.

To whet your appetite for birding and Masterson’s book, here’s a little quiz, pulled from its pages.
  1. Big storms, like hurricanes, can wreak havoc for birdwatching: True or False?
  2. One of these things is NOT on the birding code of ethics:
    a. Promote the welfare of birds and their environments.
    b. Make sure feeders are safe and clean.
    c. Always promote the presence of a rare bird.
    d. Stay on roads, trails and paths, otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.
  3. The arrival of songbirds from their tropical winter homes peaks in:
    a. February
    b. October
    c. May
    d. early fall

  4. One rare bird you may see off New Hampshire’s coast in the winter is:
    a. Atlantic puffin
    b. Bicknell’s thrush
    c. ruby-throated hummingbird
    d. gray jay
  5. Canada geese flying through New Hampshire in the spring are usually heading for:
    a. Ontario
    b. South America
    c. the Bahamas
    d. eastern Canadian provinces

  6. The only staffed raptor observatory in New Hampshire is:
    a. on the Isles of Shoals
    b. on Pack Monadnock Mountain
    c. on Mount Washington
    d. in Concord, at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium

  7. The best time of year to see golden eagles in New Hampshire is:
    a. late-October through early November
    b. during spring migration
    c. in mid-summer along the coast
    d. never. They don’t pass through New Hampshire.

  8. If you were to take a day off of work to see the annual hawk migration, the best time to do it would be:
    a. in the spring, around May 15
    b. near the end of the migration in November
    c. between September 16 and 19
    d. it’s too erratic to pick a date

  9. Most species of songbirds migrate during:
    a. the night
    b. the day

  10. Birds that we can see in New Hampshire can be migrants from as far away as:
    a. the Florida Keys
    b. California
    c. Long Island Sound
    d. Antarctica
The Answers: 
  1. False. Some of the best birdwatching opportunities can come after big storms, which sometimes leave exotic birds in their wakes. For instance, Masterson notes that tropical species were seen all along the East Coast, deposited by the hurricane. In New Hampshire, that included sightings of white-tailed tropicbird and sooty tern.
  2. C. Promoting the presence of a rare bird. There may be a few good reasons to not promote its presence, especially if the promotion might endanger the bird.
  3. C. May, usually during the middle of the month. It’s coming right up!
  4. A. Atlantic puffin. You can see these beautiful birds in February in places like Jeffrey’s Ledge, many miles off the coast, if you can actually get out there.
  5. D. Eastern Canadian provinces, including Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland or Labrador. Some individuals will go as far north as Greenland.
  6. B. On Pack Monadnock. The site has been fully covered by a staffer from New Hampshire Audubon each fall since 2005. On average, 9,895 raptors have been counted each fall, many of which are broad-winged hawks.
  7. A. Late-October through early November. Though you might spot a golden eagle in New Hampshire during its spring migration, you stand a better chance in the fall.
  8. C. Between September 16 and 19. If you were to draw a bell curve for the best date, it would be around September 18.
  9. A. the night. They will often make landfall before dawn, then spend the day resting and refueling.
  10. D. Antarctica. In fact, the Arctic tern flies from its Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back, sometimes passing through coastal New Hampshire during their journey.
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Is Bigfoot Roaming the Hancock Hills?

Several sightings start scientific study of sasquatch on Skatutakee.

HANCOCK, NH, April 1, 2013 - Miles O’Keefe remembers every detail of that brilliant fall afternoon last Sept. 31, when he hiked up Mount Skatutakee in Hancock.

Weary from his ascent, though only a few minutes from the summit, O’Keefe sat against a huge pine, caught his breath and shut his eyes for a moment.

That’s when he heard it. Just a faint shuffle of leaves, somewhere off the trail.

“The sounds got louder, and I could hear the crunching of twigs,” said O’Keefe, a retired school custodian from Dublin. “It sounded like someone was walking in the woods.”

O’Keefe shouted, “Hey, who’s there?”

Not hearing a response, O’Keefe stood up and peered through the trees. Nothing. He waited a few minutes, took a swig and put the bottle back in his pack. Still nothing. So he shouldered his pack and continued up the trail, wondering if there was a bear in the woods or if someone was playing tricks on him.

Suddenly, he heard a crashing through the woods, something big. Expecting a bear, O’Keefe froze in his tracks and glanced toward the sound.

“It was about 40 feet in the woods and running away from me,” he said. “I could see right away it was no bear. It was about 9 feet tall and running away on two legs, covered from head to toe with dark, black fur or hair. I knew right away it was bigfoot.” 

Big Plans Afoot for Bigfoot 

While O’Keefe’s story sounds unbelievable, some new evidence of a large primate on Hancock’s hills has surfaced and the state’s wildlife agency is preparing to have its own look.

A Hancock resident who wants to remain anonymous claims that his game camera captured an image of Skatutakee’s sasquatch on March 9. The motion-activated camera, which the resident sometimes baits with carcasses, was on a remote part of the mountain when it photographed the ape-like animal.

Until now, N.H. Fish and Wildlife Department officials have been skeptical of periodic sasquatch sightings around the state. Now, the Department's Cryptozoology Program is planning a full-blown biological assessment of bigfoot in the Monadnock Region.

“Presented with recent convincing evidence of this elusive animal, we are now compelled to gather biological data to better understand and manage the population, if it indeed exists,” said Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Englewood. “So we’re happy to use our extremely limited resources to gain some valuable insight into this curious mammal’s population dynamics and habitat use. Ultimately, we want to know if this presents an opportunity for recreational hunting, as well as some sorely needed revenue for the Department.” 

Mark and Recapture 

Now getting under way, the Fish and Wildlife bigfoot study will focus on Mount Skatutakee and Thumb Mountain in Hancock. It will be a classic “mark and recapture” study, which is a common method in ecology used to determine population densities and habitat use in a given area. The mark and recapture method can be used for creatures as small as a snail and as big as a black bear … or even bigfoot.

“What we’ll do is capture a sample number, tag and release those individuals unharmed, then go back after a period of time and attempt to capture and tag either the same or additional individuals,” Englewood said. “Using standard biological and statistical principles, we can extrapolate the number of individuals per given area. That, and a bunch of guesswork.”

If one or more bigfoot are captured, they will also be fitted with radio-telemetry collars to let researchers study the animals’ use of habitat. Shiny and brightly colored collars will also help the animals find mates.

Because bigfoot are elusive and potentially wicked dangerous, Fish and Wildlife will have the actual capturing done by unpaid interns.

“There are some obvious issues involving liability and reputational risk,” Englewood said. “So we think this would be an ideal learning opportunity for student interns. They would much rather be in the field, anyway, doing glamorous research for which they could ultimately be rewarded with fame, glory and … well, you know, fame and glory.” 

You Never Know What May Appear 

The bigfoot sightings are welcome news to Reed Cabot, semi-retired senior naturalist emeritus at the Barbara P.C. Harris Center for Conservation Observation in Hancock or Greenfield. He points to the value of protected habitats in the center’s Uber-Sanctuary, covering some umpteen thousand acres in 20-or-30-something towns.

“We’ve known for a long time now that, once these lands are protected, all sorts of wide-ranging animals will use these tracts as travel corridors,” Cabot said. “Species like bobcats, black bear, moose, ticks and bigfoot.”

Many questions remain, like, how did this big, hairy animal elude detection for so long?

Miles O’Keefe, who holds the lonely distinction of actually seeing a bigfoot in New Hampshire, thinks he has the answer. O’Keefe has now become somewhat of an expert in sasquatch ecology. Since his sighting, O’Keefe has become a card-carrying, certified bigfoot scientist by the Union of Scientific Sasquatch Researchers (USSR).

“Things appear in the woods when you do what I did that day in September,” O’Keefe said. “Just sit down for a minute and be still. Let the forest settle out and keep an open mind. You never know what may appear.” 

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock, where you never know …