Literature seduced me into the avian world. Helen MacDonald’s "H is for Hawk," led to T.H. White’s "The Goshawk," then J.A. Baker’s "The Peregrine." Jennifer Ackerman’s "The Genius of Birds" is on my reading list for this summer. We observed birds as a family when we were growing up, and there was always at least one bird feeder in our backyard – usually more – binoculars by the window and a Peterson’s guide close by. Yet I have never studied migratory patterns, nesting and mating behavior, or dialect – the tweets, chirps and twitters of the various exquisite creatures that comprise the many species of birds.
My interest and research into raptors was driven by Ned O’Gorman poem “The Buzzard and the Peacock” and led me to Eric Masterson, author of "Birdwatching in New Hampshire," (University Press of New England, April 2013). Each spring and fall Eric leads a group of serious birders to track the migration on Star Island, one of the nine islands that comprise the Isle of Shoals, located 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire.
As Eric points out there are three things to consider in tracking migratory patterns: location, time of year and weather. Star Island is an ideal place to observe the birds as it is 46 acres of craggy rocks and low brush vegetation, providing an ideal resting spot for birds traveling north in the spring and south in the fall.
We were scheduled to depart for Star Island from Portsmouth last Friday afternoon. High winds and heavy rains caused rough seas and high swells, postponing our trip until the next morning.
Overnight the weather changed and when Saturday dawned it was a glorious morning with a clear blue sky and sunshine. We gathered at the dock just before seven o’clock and an hour later disembarked and dropped our duffels in various guest houses, as the facilities on Star Island are not officially open until the end of May.
It didn’t take long before the group had regathered with “bins” (binoculars) hanging from their necks and cameras slung across their shoulders, most with high-powered, zoom lenses. Eric and a few others carried scopes and tripods, so it was possible to zoom in for close-ups of birds at a far distance.
Eric can identify every species and would point – “over there, on the low branch there is a …” Or he would stop in mid-step and cup his ear: “Listen, hear that sound” – he would mimic the bird and we would all look around to find the source. Often the birds were camouflaged in the low branches of the firs and bushes that cover the rocky topography.
Just after we landed on Star Island, I learned there were two birders from Laconia in the group, John Gill, the well-known nature photographer, and Stan Brallier.
John was there to photograph, and told me: “to observe and listen to Eric in action. His ability to spot and identify bird species by naked eye, ear, and spotting scope is phenomenal. Since warblers are among the most difficult birds to photograph, I appreciated the opportunity to get strong imagery of five species (Cape May, Nashville, Northern Parula, Magnolia, and Yellow).” If you want to view some of John’s photographs, they can be found on his website.
Stan has been birding for 56 years: "Ever since my sophomore year in college when two of my dorm mates introduced me to the sport and science of birding, so I have met a lot of very knowledgeable birders with highly developed skills at finding and identifying birds. However, it was obvious that Eric's knowledge of and passion for birds goes far beyond just identification, deep into the science and appreciation of bird life, which provides such depth that one cannot help but be impressed and inspired to expand one's own birding horizons.”
Stan served as my coach, downloading the photographs of the species we were spotting from the eBird mobile application, which provides a photograph of the bird from various angles, the bird’s sounds and other information. The program also allows you to save the sighting so you can maintain a digital observation list.
There were a number of special moments for the experienced birders over the weekend. One of the highlights was climbing down over rocks to find an eider nest with a few eggs. We moved quietly and spent only a few minutes, so the roosting eider wouldn’t be away from the nest for too long. On Sunday morning Eric spotted a Common Murre, which was a rare sighting.
Because of the rain and wind, we were able to experience the migration in black and white. On Saturday there were hundreds of birds (perhaps more). They had, according to Eric, probably arrived Friday morning and then stayed because of the inclement weather. Birds migrate at night, so they left on Saturday evening. On our early morning pre-breakfast walk on Sunday morning there were few birds to be seen. There was, at times, an almost deafening silence in comparison to the previous day.
In our frenetic world, there is nothing that restores the spirit as much as spending a weekend being out in nature, completely enthralled by these exquisite feathered creatures.
John Gill: https://www.johngillphoto.com
Eric Masterson: http://ericmasterson.com
Star Island: https://starisland.org
Elizabeth Howard’s career intersects journalism, marketing and communications. "Ned O’Gorman: A Glance Back," a book she edited, was published in May 2016. She is the author of "A Day with Bonefish Joe," a children’s book, published by David R. Godine. She is the Madeleine L’Engle Fellow at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. She has a home in Laconia. You can send her a note at: Elizabeth@laconiadailysun.com