Von Mertens

There’s been a master birder living among us

This eastern meadowlark, an uncommon species, showed up at the Fremont Field conservation area in Peterborough last week. It stayed a few days that included a late-spring snowfall.

This eastern meadowlark, an uncommon species, showed up at the Fremont Field conservation area in Peterborough last week. It stayed a few days that included a late-spring snowfall.

The Harris Center big room was crowded Sunday afternoon as Eric Masterson launched his book, “Birdwatching in New Hampshire.”

Since Eric arrived on the New Hampshire scene 14 years ago, he’s earned a following. How he arrived is a good story. It’s one of many good stories that involve his friend, David Baum.

David was traveling with Kate, daughter of Terry Reeves, his wife. They were in Roundstone, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland.

David stole a few hours from their touring to go birding, but as Kate was his focus — not birding — he didn’t have a field guide and had not done the homework birders do before they go traveling with birds the focus.

A mystery bird appeared along with a fellow with binoculars and scope. David explained that he was new to the area, and asked the fellow if he could ID the bird. (Birders new to an area always look for someone with binoculars and scope.)

The fellow obliged. The mystery bird was a pied wagtail (more about that bird later).

Introductions were made: David Baum shook hands with Eric Masterson. They spent a couple hours together with Eric as guide, and David told Eric that if he ever traveled to the States David would like to reciprocate.

Three months later he got a call: Eric and his wife, Trish, were relocating to the States, Trish’s homeland, and scouting out where to live.

It was David’s birthday weekend and a lot of friends were gathering for the occasion. David invited Eric and Trish to join in. They did, meeting David and Terry’s community of friends, and in short order they were living in Peterborough.

I met Eric that weekend. I’d heard about the Irish birding bloke and ran into David and Eric at the Fremont Field conservation area right next to David and Terry’s home. A few years before — in the early 1990s — David helped raise money to buy the field as Peterborough conservation land.

As for the pied wagtail that Eric ID’d for David, it was one of the “spark birds” that launched Eric as a birder when he was 11 years old, tagging along with a skilled birder. The U.K. has many skilled birders, known for keeping journals that include field sketches of birds encountered.

You don’t see many U.S. birders pausing to write about and sketch birds. We tend to keep moving, although most top birders have become good photographers. We click and keep moving.

Pied wagtails are named for their black-and-white coloring and a long tail that keeps bobbing as they step along. It’s a common bird in Ireland but had gone unnoticed until the encounter that initiated Eric as a lifelong birder and conservationist. As he might say, “It’s a stunner.”

Some three decades later, Eric’s book is a stunner. His photographs capture the intimacy of nature closely observed, but the photographs are incidental to a guide to birding hotspots in the state, as well as information to assist bird- and nature-watching.

The photo here isn’t in Eric’s book. He took it last week at Fremont Field after receiving an alert from David Baum about what Eric calls a “good bird,” an eastern meadowlark.

I love the photo. It captures the life that birds bring to the world, in this case an uncommon bird with bright yellow markings against a muted background.

Eric’s book includes a January-through-December bar graph for each of the 300 bird species that reliably spend time in New Hampshire. The bar graph indicates that eastern meadowlarks show up late in March and begin to head south in mid-September. Color coding indicates they are uncommon; a brief habitat notation mentions airport grasslands; and a downward arrow indicates they are declining.

The meadowlark was the last photo that Eric showed on Sunday at the Harris Center. He said eastern meadowlarks are declining to such an extent that New Hampshire Audubon is tracking their breeding occurrence. He also advocated for conservation areas like the Fremont Field.

The pied wagtail not only sparked Eric as a birder; it shaped his career choice, too. He works in land conservation at the Harris Center, and before that with New Hampshire Audubon.

Local fundraising “saved” the 21-acre Fremont Field, and the Peterborough Conservation Commission maintains it as open field, a habitat that’s in decline along with grassland birds and other grassland species.

Eric showed up here in a Backyard Birder column soon after arriving in town. Here’s part of my write-up of the 2000 Christmas Bird Count:

“Eric was the one who said ‘pull over’ along a wonderful wetland complex flowing out of Thorndike Pond in Jaffrey. A flutter of streamside goldfinches had caught his eye, small figures drinking from an opening in snow and ice while the larger flock worked high and quiet in the black birches above, mining plump birch cones for their tiny seeds. ‘You can’t beat that,’ said Eric, fully appreciating the moment.”

He’ll be presenting his book at the Keene Toadstool Bookstore this Sunday at 2 p.m., and the Peterborough Toadstool, Saturday, April 27, at 11 a.m.

A reminder also that my spring Birding-by-Ear class starts Monday (Earth Day), 7 p.m. at the Peterborough Library. Come on along.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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