American Pipits

by Vanessa Johnson

American Pipits

East of the Rocky Mountains, American Pipit nests have been documented on only two isolated mountaintop areas in the US – Maine’s Mt. Katahdin and New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. Their extremely limited breeding distribution causes pipits to be state-listed as a “Special Concern” species in NH.

Funding from the Robert F. Schumann Foundation and the Blake-Nuttall Fund (and by the Waterman Fund in 2017) enabled NH Audubon to return to Mt. Washington to study pipits, a species that is ground-nesting at a higher elevation than any other bird in New England. As we knew from previous work 20 years ago, Mt. Washington’s summit weather can present considerable challenges when trying to conduct fieldwork above treeline.

We conducted targeted surveys near the summit of Mt. Washington in June and July 2018. Our field team managed to get out on the mountain on only five days due to weather. There were few days without fog or strong winds when we could walk hiking trails and parts of the Auto Road to look and listen for pipits and watch adult behavior for clues about nests.

Despite those challenges, we tallied an estimated 26 adult pipits plus five juveniles, including 16 adults before July 11, and 10 adults interacting with five fledged young on/after July 11. We mapped 11 pipit display flight areas that all had starting elevations between 5,525 and 6,150 feet. Aspect of terrain where these displays originated was not random. In fact, all flights started at spots where the ground faced in an arc from the west-northwest to the northeast. Pipits were most active in areas north and northwest of the summit, and most conspicuous in the Cow Pasture, at the 6,000 ft parking area, near the Nelson Crag Trail crossing, and along the Cog Railway near the Great Gulf Headwall. In contrast, eastern, southern, and western sides of the summit appeared to be nearly devoid of pipits.

To our great disappointment, after endlessly watching pipits forage for insects, we did not locate even one active nest in 2018. But we will be back on “The Rockpile” again in 2019 to pick up where we left off this season!

Project Leader: Chris Martin

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