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Best Bets for Early Spring ’20 on NH Audubon Sanctuaries

Best Bets for Early Spring ’20 on NH Audubon Sanctuaries

By Phil Brown, Director of Land Management

In order to ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce the spread of COVID-19, please do your part to abide by official guidelines and recommendations, including social distancing, in order to recreate responsibly. As of the writing of this article, NH residents have not been discouraged from going outside. Thus, our wildlife sanctuaries remain open to the public at this time. However, we strongly urge those – including those in the outdoors – to STAY LOCAL while seeking out these opportunities, and to practice social distancing measures as outlined by the CDC:

Sanctuary Top Ten Best Bets for Enjoying Early Spring
With spring come renewed opportunities to view spectacles of the natural world on NH Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries – bird and amphibian migration, wildlife mating displays, spring blooms and the return of the insects that feed on them, saturation of the earth through the spring melt, and much more. During this uncertain time of social distancing and relative isolation, we are all still surrounded by these wonderful signs of the natural world, which we need more than ever. Fortunately, chances are you need not be on an Audubon sanctuary to experience some of these things. I have been enjoying sunny, warm spring days gazing skyward to see Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures, and Red-tailed Hawks beginning their migrations over our skies, and enjoying the sky dance of American Woodcocks with my children at a nearby field. Perhaps your own backyard, too, offers such opportunities, and if so, consider yourselves among the more fortunate nature lovers right now.

But, perhaps ‘your’ local sanctuary is one of NH Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries that is up and running for public use at this point, such as one of those suggested below. Our lands are among the best places in the state to bear witness to spring’s natural marvels. There is always something new to learn and enjoy if you look a little closer and more intently in a familiar place. Some of our top spring picks are highlighted below.

*CAUTION: Please note that ‘mud season’ conditions dominate across much of the state during April and into early May, so not all trails are open or recommended at this point in the season. Be prepared and use caution and common sense in both parking and hiking situations. In addition, there may still be snow and ice on some trails, especially along shaded sections. Expect deeper snow and ice to persist in areas including central and northern NH and in higher elevations. We are also into tick season at this point, too, in many areas, so please take appropriate precautions when hiking our trails.
Please refer to the trail guides for site-specific visitor information, including visitor guidelines. Our staff and volunteers have worked hard to prepare many of our sanctuaries for an increase in visitation during this challenging time; however, we are unable to guarantee changing conditions.

Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary, Dover – salt marshes and spring waterfowl migration on Little Bay
Waterfowl migration is in full swing! On coastal rivers and bays, such as both Great and Little Bay, you can view Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and Red-breasted Mergansers feeding and beginning their breeding displays, some which involve males comically ‘head-bobbing’ and calling to the onlooking females. Look for these strikingly-patterned ducks along the Cove Trail and Clements Point Trail where they border the Bellamy River and Little Bay. Note that parking is quite limited here.

Hebron Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Hebron – open fields and views of Newfound Lake
Dabbling ducks are congregating in Hebron Marsh, the largest and most important wetland to wildlife on Newfound Lake. When the snow and ice retreat, expect to find dozens of Canada Geese, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Wood Ducks and Green-winged Teal (as well as a few other species) ‘tipping up’ as they dabble for food in the emergent vegetation. This spectacle is best viewed from the grassy area to the south of Ash Cottage. Here, you will also find an interpretive kiosk with more information about the trails and wildlife of the area, and you may wish to hike the Beaver Trail along the Cockermouth River in search of other spring signs like bluebirds and turtles.

Willard Pond Wildlife Sanctuary, Antrim and Hancock – shoreline and mountain trails in the heart of the Monadnock Region’s ‘Supersanctuary’
This largest of NH Audubon’s wildlife sanctuaries has a diversity of trails and experiences, but the commonality across all of them is an abundance of exposed granite. Large granite boulders that dot the sanctuary’s trails make for endless fascination. Search for porcupine scat and the occasional phoebe nest tucked in a sheltered spot. For a water view, the Mill Pond Trail is a short walk with two stream crossings that may yield views of Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers feeding on the pond. The sanctuary’s most popular hike – Bald Mountain via the Tamposi Trail – is a regional favorite, and provides endless visibility to the south and east, a vantage point that is great for spring hawk watching.

Dahl Wildlife Sanctuary, North Conway – managed fields and protected floodplain forests along the Saco River
See, smell, and touch life in the understory of a mature silver maple floodplain forest in high water season, and learn about the unique history and current management of this special habitat. Visitors may notice shredded stumps and vegetation that remains from this past winter’s field management in which several acres of young forest were cut back to promote early successional (shrubland) habitat. In a few years, these spots will again be full of breeding warblers, buntings, and other birds that depend on this limited habitat feature. The Saco River in spring may flood into the lower portions of the sanctuary, boosting regeneration thanks to its deposits of nutrients. *Please note: Temporary parking is available in the LL Bean parking lot until store reopens.

Silk Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Concord – the sky dance of the woodcock and vernal pools in the Capital City
Though the McLane Center is closed at this time, the sanctuary trails and connecting trail system is open and full of spring sign! The flight display ‘sky dance’ of the American Woodcock can best be seen on warm evenings from the bike path along Silk Farm Road and the Old Orchard Trail. To quietly observe Wood Frogs breeding, look in the vernal pool complex behind the trailhead kiosk in the area of the wooden bridge. Please keep in mind that noise and movement will disturb them, and that no dogs are permitted here.

Hoyt Wildlife Sanctuary, Madison/Eaton – glacial features abound at the edge of Purity Lake
This 135-acre sanctuary is mainly forested and includes considerable lakeshore frontage on Purity Lake, where it abuts the Purity Spring Resort, which is owned by the Hoyt family. A trail system allows visitors to access some interesting features of the property including glacial features like eskers and a kettlehole named ‘No Bottom Pond’. There are ample opportunities for seeing wildlife including nesting Common Loons and other wetland species. *Please note: Temporary parking is available at the Mill and Millbrook parking areas located on the adjacent Purity Spring Resort until resort reopens.
View a virtual tour of Hoyt Sanctuary from Purity Spring Resort’s Heather McKendry!

Thompson Wildlife Sanctuary, Sandwich – experience the sights of sounds of spring in an expansive marsh system in the Lakes Region
This ‘forever wild’ sanctuary contains nearly 100 acres of important wetland habitats, much of which can be viewed from a short boardwalk trail system that meets accessibility standards. An abundance of wildlife – including over 200 species of birds, numerous turtles, frogs and mammals, and an astounding abundance of invertebrates – can be seen from its trails. While the boardwalk and trail system is somewhat narrow, there are passing areas from which one can practice social distancing if you must share the trail. Note that parking here (as with other sanctuaries) is limited, and roadside parking is discouraged. When mud season conditions pass in May, the Wilderness Trail (accessed via Middle Road) is recommended for a longer woodland walk.
View Thompson Sanctuary on Trailfinder.

Massabesic Wildlife Sanctuary, Auburn – bluebird and tree swallow extravaganza near Manchester
This 49-acre sanctuary was acquired in 1993 and is home to the Massabesic Audubon Center. Together with adjacent lands owned by Manchester Water Works that extend north to Battery Point, this sanctuary features trail access to Lake Massabesic, as well as a variety of upland habitats including mixed forests and open fields. The fields are managed for grassland nesting birds, while nest boxes are actively managed for Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds, which add a splash of color and sound to the browns of early spring. Maps providing full trail descriptions are available at the Massabesic Audubon Center.
View Massabesic Sanctuary on Trailfinder.

Pondicherry Wildlife Sanctuary, Jefferson and Whitefield – experience some of the classic sounds and signs of spring in the North Country
This 6,000-acre ‘crown jewel’ of the sanctuary system is managed jointly as part of a National Wildlife Refuge with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge protects an incredible diversity of woodland and wetland habitats and is home to rare species of plants and wildlife, including over 230 species of birds (125 of which breed here). Listen for drumming Ruffed Grouse and the songs of Winter Wrens and White-throated Sparrows as the spring progresses. By May, the woodlands turn into a cacophony of birdsong! An extensive trail system with three trailheads allows visitors to spread out and explore many of the habitats including both Cherry and Little Cherry Ponds. These areas are managed by partners including the Friends of Pondicherry, a local volunteer group. *We strongly recommend picking up a Pondicherry trail guide, which is more up to date.
View Pondicherry Sanctuary on Trailfinder.

Proctor Wildlife Sanctuary, Center Harbor – tall pines and a meandering stream provide solitude in the Lakes Region
What the tiny Proctor Wildlife Sanctuary lacks in size, it makes up for in the size of many of the White Pines that dominate the entrance to its beautiful trails. These trees are a gateway to surrounding mixed and northern hardwood forests, home to numerous birds and mammals. The yellow-blazed Brookside Trail follows a water feature that bears its name and provides for a nice soundscape on an otherwise quiet (until the spring birds arrive) walk. For a longer walk, connect to trails owned and managed by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust across the street.

We are fortunate that, thanks to the work of multiple agencies, organizations and land trusts, there are so many great places to get outside and recreate in all parts of the state. If parking lots are full, please seek another hiking area and avoid parking on roadsides to prevent crowding on certain trails. To find a trail near your own community, see https://www.trailfinder.info/trails
And, remember, stay local and practice social distancing and safe hiking practices!