Despite challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory was able to complete its annual tracking project in 2020 and reported strong numbers for a few different species.
During the tracking period, which runs Sept. 1 through Nov. 20, participants counted nearly 12,000 birds migrating south from New Hampshire, according to the final tally on the Harris Center for Conservation Education's website. The Hancock-based nonprofit organizes the count as part of a collaboration with N.H. Audubon and N.H. State Parks.
Though public participation in the process was a bit different than in a typical year, the team of volunteers, which is headed up by a raptor biologist, counted 15 different raptor species, and some in record numbers. Raptor refers to any bird of prey, defined as a bird that pursues other animals for food, including eagles, falcons and hawks.
Phil Brown, who coordinates the observation project for the Harris Center, said one notable positive trend was in the bald eagle population. He said bald eagles have made "a real big comeback" in recent years, a significant turnaround since they were declared an endangered species by the federal government back in 1978.
"This year, we saw 185 of them," Brown said. "They were just about a daily occurrence. Some days we could see a dozen or 15." He added that bald eagle numbers have been growing throughout the areas of the country where they're known to live and not just in New Hampshire.
There has been a positive trend for the peregrine falcon, as well, 30 of which were spotted during this year's tracking period, according to Brown. The average in past years was 41 peregrines per season, but Brown noted that this raptor's comeback has been going on for several decades.
However, he also said there were some less positive observations, including a downward trend in osprey, with only 162 counted in 2020, compared to an average of 233 in previous years.
He also said the kestrel falcon has been on the decline in recent years, though they, too, seem to have made a bit of resurgence lately, with a record 257 counted this year at Pack Monadnock.
"The kestrel is one that a lot of biologists are concerned about, and we've noticed a declining trend," he said. "However, this year there was a real bright spot, and we saw more kestrel than we've ever seen. ... So that was a really encouraging and kind of surprising number, considering their recent plight."
The pandemic presented the observation team with a number of challenges, Brown noted. During a normal year, the group would be joined by thousands of people over the course of a tracking season, and while many still turned out to look for birds or visit the observatory this year, the group was unable to host organized sessions with school groups, as they normally would.
At the start of the tracking period, Brown said, they weren't even sure that N.H. State Parks would allow them to use Pack Monadnock for their observations. The parks system did eventually agree to it, but they were able to bring only a limited number of volunteers.
They sectioned off parts of the observatory to encourage social distancing, he said, and asked visitors to wear a mask. But they were unable to sell merchandise this year, which hurt fundraising, though he said the group was able to complete the count thanks to a number of donations from community members.
The pandemic also affected another bird watching event — the annual Keene Christmas Bird Count.
Brown, who also coordinates the Christmas count, said it is the longest-running Christmas bird count in the U.S., having started in 1900. The event did have a 50- to 60-year hiatus, but has run continuously over the past 40 or so years, Brown said.
Normally, groups of people would go out and count the birds they see in an assigned area within a 15-mile radius centered on downtown Keene. But this year, Brown said, groups went out alone or with people in their immediate circles, meaning fewer people were able to watch the same area.
"One challenge that we have is there are fewer eyes and ears to detect and identify things in a particular group," Brown said.
During the count, in which 26 observers covered 13 different parts of the city, a record 62 different species throughout the city, beating the previous record of 61. The observers counted 9,453 individual birds.
Brown said there were also record counts for 22 species, including four species of woodpecker, the black-capped chickadee, the tufted titmouse, both species of nuthatches, northern cardinal, Carolina wren, mourning dove and barred owl. He noted that there were also several rare sightings — the red-headed woodpecker, spotted in Keene, and a long-tailed duck found on Spofford Lake.
"The three most common species recorded were Black-capped Chickadee (1495), Blue Jay (1086) and Dark-eyed Junco (1073)," Brown said in a Monday morning email. "So, this was truly a spectacular showing all around."