Topic: Profiles

New England’s Avian Superhighway

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Common Tern Band # 1322-09499

Common Tern Band # 1322-09499

Black Tern and Common Tern on CT River, Hinsdale NH, May 2011

Black Tern and Common Tern on CT River, Hinsdale NH, May 2011

All photos/art by Eric Masterson

The Connecticut River links four of New England’s six states along its 410 miles, starting at the northern tip of the New Hampshire/Maine border, from where it flows south between New Hampshire and Vermont, through Massachusetts and Connecticut, finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Long Island Sound. Like Interstate 91, its companion for much of the way, the river provides a direct north-south route through New England, but for birds, not people. Birds navigate using a variety of methods. Some species use their sense of smell, others navigate using the earth’s magnetic field, yet all use visual cues. The river, even from thousands of feet, provides a clear route north when the weather is fair.

Beginning in late February and early March, the masses of Canada geese, green-winged teal and other waterfowl that crowd New England’s coastal marshes during winter heed the call of impending spring and start to head north. Many follow the Atlantic Coastal plain, others the Connecticut River Valley. In April, just as waterfowl migration is winding down, hawks start moving, hunting the valley’s fields and fishing the river’s waters. By May, bird traffic is at a peak as a multitude of species from Central and South America head north to the Canadian boreal forest. When all is said and done, about 165 species of migrant birds will have graced the river or the adjacent fields and woodlands before the season turns. Some 40 species are strictly in transit, using the river corridor as a highway to points further north. Numerous individuals of other species will stay to nest in the river’s marshes, floodplain forests, and myriad of other habitats.

In mid-May I was photographing common terns in Hinsdale for a book I am writing on the birds of NH for University Press. Common terns spend the winter in the Caribbean and along the coast of South America, and in summer nest primarily in coastal areas of North America. They more rarely nest inland, including a couple of spots in Vermont, Maine, and New York. Inland-breeding common tern is a classic migrant of the Connecticut River Valley, following the river strictly as a highway to get to its final destination somewhere to the north. Where any one individual is headed is anyone’s guess, except if you get lucky. The common tern I photographed was banded.

I reported the band number # 1322-09499 to the US Fish and Wildlife Service
and a few days later received an e-mail informing me that the bird was originally banded as a chick on July 11, 2008, six miles west of Massena, in the St. Lawrence River Valley in St. Lawrence County New York, a relatively modest 194 miles northwest of Hinsdale “as the crow flies”. It’s a bit longer “as the tern flies”, though not the 293 mile route recommended by MapQuest.

Someday I hope to be able to find a banded Arctic tern migrating along the river. I have seen non-banded individuals twice. The world champion at long distance migration, Arctic Terns winter in Antarctic waters and the majority breed in the arctic and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere, almost a pole to pole journey. Until I find that elusive band, I can only guess where the Connecticut River Arctic terns are headed, just like guessing where that car speeding north on I91 is destined. In the meantime I will continue to marvel at a bird’s ability to do on a few ounces of fat what it takes us hundreds of gallons of gas to achieve.

You can read more about the birdlife of the Connecticut River Valley and the New England region at my blog, beyondbirding.wordpress.com


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