It’s been around 20 years since the state last collected reliable data on the endangered northern harrier, a mid-sized raptor native to the state.
Without an updated field survey, it’s unknown where they are breeding, how many of them there are, or in what regions they can be found. The state needs that information to determine how it would protect the species and help it recover.
The bird of prey is now among the least common in the state and believed to be declining further, according to the New Hampshire Audubon. The nonprofit organization will continue researching the bird with a $65,000 award from New Hampshire Fish and Game. In July, the Executive Council approved the sole-source contract to pay N.H. Audubon to continue monitoring several species of state birds that are at risk, including the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and cliff swallow.
These state conservation efforts come as biodiversity has been declining, both globally and locally. A 2019 report found that North America has lost 1 in 4 birds in the past 50 years, or 2.9 billion birds. A 2020 Audubon report found that of New Hampshire’s 190 bird species, 80 are on the decline.
While human impacts such as development and destruction of habitats are driving much of the loss, human intervention can also help species recover. Both Fish and Game and state conservation groups have focused on preserving habitats in order to bolster the survival of species.
“A lot of our actions are more focused on habitats rather than species, because by focusing on habitats we can benefit a whole bunch of different species, whether they’re rare or common,” said Mike Marchand, a wildlife biologist at New Hampshire Fish and Game who works with endangered and nongame species.
The state receives federal funding to do this work by creating a Wildlife Action Plan every 10 years. The current plan began in 2015 and identifies 169 “species of greatest conservation need.” Many of the species are birds, but New Hampshire Fish and Game doesn’t have an avian specialist on their staff, so they work with ornithologists at Audubon.
A tremendous recovery
Regulating harmful chemicals has been another winning strategy when it comes to rehabilitating certain species. DDT, a synthetic insecticide widely used throughout the middle of the 20th century, was linked to the decline of birds of prey, such as osprey and eagles. Since it was banned in 1972, raptors – including bald eagles – have made a stunning recovery in New Hampshire and across the country.
DDT created problems for the raptors who ingested it, weakening their eggshells and preventing the birds from reproducing successfully.
For a 40-year period, bald eagles vanished from New Hampshire, until a single pair started nesting at Umbagog Lake from 1988 to 1997. As of 2021, the Audubon estimates that there are 81 eagle pairs in the state, and the population is doubling every 5 to 7 years. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the list of endangered species.
“Basically the population has really been exploding since we got them through that,” said Marchand.
In addition to banning DDT, Marchand said other conservation steps aided the recovery of bald eagles, including working with private landowners to protect individual birds; installing predator guards on trees (metal rings that prevent predators like raccoons from reaching nests); and protecting land where eagles are likely to nest.
Even with the success of these efforts, ongoing monitoring and management are still necessary, although reduced from what they once were, Marchand said. Because there are state and federal protections in place for eagles, the state needs to know where they live to assist landowners and process permit applications.
Now, the state hopes to replicate this success story with other species, including the northern harrier.
“As we recover those species, we can, with limited resources, turn to the next species that are in need of attention,” Marchand said.
In a monitoring project that began in 2019, Audubon found just one harrier nesting site in the state, in addition to two young birds at other sites.
Getting more information about harriers will help the state determine what steps need to be taken to restore the species.
This story was written by Amanda Gokee, energy and environment reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.