Snow Geese at Dead Creek - Wayne Benoit - Hanover, NH
The Michelin Red Guide is well known for its three star rating system for restaurants. That three star ranking is the Holy Grail for chefs the world over symbolizing “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.”
So one might say about certain birding destinations. There are some that are worth that special journey. For example Cape May, NJ with its song bird bonanza in spring migration or Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in New Mexico when the snow geese and sand hill cranes come through. Florida's Sanibel Island, home to the JN "Ding" Darling NWR during winter is a prized destination hosting up to 230 bird species.
But let’s say you don’t have the time or money to visit one of these “starred” destinations. There are some very good spots easily accessible from the Upper Valley that will reward you with an opportunity to see a variety of species not generally seen locally especially shore birds, “waders” and gulls.
First on my list would be Parker River NWR in Newburyport, MA. Aside from its lovely, unspoiled six plus miles of barrier beach, the refuge offers an array of habitats that host an equally diverse number of bird species. You’ll find among its 4700 acres; sandy beaches and salt pannes that host shore birds and “waders,” maritime forest and shrub land that attracts a good variety of song birds, fresh water marsh and man-made impoundments that draw waterfowl as well as extensive saltwater marsh habitat that comprises almost two-thirds of the refuge’s acreage. According to the refuge guide nearly 300 bird species have been identified within its boundaries. The numbers are largest and most diverse in migration season. A particular attraction is the tree swallow migration in late August when swarms numbering in the thousands make their way down the island.
A couple of caveats: most of the beaches are closed from April 1 through late August to protect endangered piping plovers that builds their nests on the beaches. Also, the refuge allows only a certain number of visitors at any one time. During the summer months, that number often is reached early in the day, which may mean no access after a long (2-and-a-half hour from Hanover) drive. I prefer to visit in the spring and fall when migration is underway, crowds are smaller and entry has never been a problem.
My recent volunteer stint in the Mountain Bird Watch program reminded me of what a great birding resource the White Mountains are. If your fit, hiking up into the mountains can give you a look at species found only at higher elevations like the Bicknell’s thrush, black-pole warbler or boreal chickadee. For those less athletically inclined there is a much less strenuous option, Pondicherry National NWR over in Whitefield, NH. The 1.5 mile hike out to the beautiful pond, with its stunning view of the Presidential Mountain Range, is on an old railroad bed. Spring and fall migration is a good time to view waterfowl that have stopped to refuel at the pond. The mixed pine and hardwood forest hosts a wide variety of warblers and insectivores as well as the black-backed woodpecker, a species rarely found in the Upper Valley.
Finally, if it’s spectacle you want, drive over to Addison, VT during migration season and visit the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. Did some one say snow geese? There is nothing quite like the sight of 3,000 of those snow white birds rising en masse from a corn field in a great swirling, cackling cloud. In addition to the geese, seven man-made impoundments host in migration a good variety of waterfowl and “waders.” A short drive farther west on VT Rt. 17 brings you to the Crown Point Bridge crossing over Lake Champlain and into New York. It’s a good spot to catch a glimpse of gulls and migrating ducks such as greater and lesser scaup, long-tailed ducks and ring-necked ducks.
No doubt there are Upper Valley birders who have their own short list of “three star” destinations. That’s how I learned about Dead Creek and Pondicherry. They’re more out there waiting to be explored. I can’t wait for my next discovery.