Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pairing up around Great Bay

New Hampshire officially has 18 miles of coastline. A short stretch compared to other states along the Eastern seaboard. We have a secret stash, however -- the Great Bay Estuary. Starting at the coastal boundary between Maine and New Hampshire, tidal waters flow 15 miles twice a day up the Piscataqua River, into Little Bay, through the Furber Strait, and into Great Bay proper. This adds 130 miles or more of tidally-influenced coastline. The Bay is known for its eelgrass beds, mudflats, saltmarsh, rocky intertidal habitats and is home to oysters, clams, striped bass, herring, smelt, and a healthy wintering population of bald eagles. In spring and fall, the bay is a resting place for migrating ducks and geese.

My friend Karin and I met up for a birding trip around the western side of the Bay, in search of some of these migrants. The sky was clear blue and the temperature would reach the mid-50s by early afternoon. We were perhaps a week or so early though, as the diversity of waterfowl was low. This gave us a chance to fully view, appreciate, and focus on the birds that were present.

We met at the Great Bay Discovery Center in Stratham, NH. On arrival I spent a few minutes watching a pair of house finches a top a tall spruce tree (planted in the parking lot). The male, with a splash of raspberry around his head and breast, was singing his slightly scratchy and more strident song, compared to the more musical purple finch (New Hampshire's state bird). The house finch is not a native Granite Stater, its arrival helped by a release of birds in New York in the 1940s.

Many other birds were already paired up. Dozens of pairs of Canada geese were floating just off-shore. Each pair swimming side-by-side and separated from other pairs by a good distance. Farther out a pair of common mergansers were casually preening, the male's dark green head contrasting with a mostly white body. Their plumage looked fresh even from afar.

From Newmarket to Durham, a winding road follows the Bay and offers a few vantage points of the water and a chance to see some landbirds. At one stop we watched and listened to two pairs of Eastern bluebirds. One pair, the male in particular, was visiting and hanging around the cavities in this old apple tree. The very blue back of the male bluebird and his rusty orange breast stood out amidst the still brown branches of the apple tree. The female flitted from tree to grass and back to tree. We soaked up the sun and watched the splashes of blue among the apple trees and listened to the soft musical chur-lee of the male.

We finished off the birding tour watching 500 or more Canada geese feeding among corn stubble on University of New Hampshire lands. At one time the University floated the idea of converting these fields to soccer fields, but there was such an uproar, including from the birding community, that the idea was dropped (one hopes for good). These slightly wet fields attract pintails, shovelors, snow geese, snipe, and other spring migrants. Some neighboring fields also grow the best sweet corn around.

Back home as I was preparing to write this, I noticed a pair of mourning doves pecking at sunflower seeds below the feeders outside my window. The two looked distinctly different. One was uniformly brown; the other, slightly larger, showed a head, neck, and throat of pastels - a pinkish wash on the breast and a pale blue wash across its head, neck, and back. His puffed up neck practically sparkled with a sheen of pink and blue pastels. Both birds sported black spots on the side of the head and a thin band of light blue skin circled the eyes. This pair foraged close together, standing on their short pink legs. They flew off briefly and when they returned, the smaller, browner female's wing and tail feathers were a bit disheveled. This pair will be looking for a nest site soon.

"Love is in the air, Everywhere I look around, Love is in the air, Every sight and every sound."
(John Paul Young, 1978)

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