By David Forsyth [All photos by the author]
The Presidential Rail Trail stretches for about 20 miles from Gorham to the Airport (Hazen) Road near the Whitefield airport. While you may observe birds anywhere along the trail, there are two main “hotspots” for birding. A couple of others are worth exploring; the Whitefield Airport area itself, which, although strictly speaking not on the trail, is special. One hotspot is in eastern Randolph towards the Gorham end of the rail trail, while the other is at Cherry Pond in the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge near the western end of the trail. Although many of the birds that you are likely to find are common to both hotspots, the two sites offer quite different birding experiences. The Randolph section of rail trail is an intimate setting, with the birds in close proximity to the trail, whereas near Cherry Pond the open water and wetland areas extend over a much larger area, and the birds are further away. Of course, this larger pond attracts more waterfowl, especially during migration.
Wild turkeys on the eastern section of the PRT
Beaver Ponds in Randolph
Starting where the PRT intersects the Dolly Copp (Pinkham B) Road in Randolph, a half-mile stretch heading east towards Gorham provides very interesting birding. In the summer I have observed more than 50 species here. The first quarter-mile heads through mostly deciduous, fairly dense woods with a small amount of slowly moving water beside part of it. The next quarter-mile is an open area with beaver ponds and wetlands. Beyond this, the trail runs through mostly coniferous woods at the base of a ridge on Mount Madison. Thus, the habitat varies significantly over a short distance. The open area near the beaver ponds is the most productive for birding; sometimes you can spot other wildlife such as beaver, otter, bear or moose.
In the deciduous woods at the start, you may catch a glimpse of red-eyed vireos,
black-capped chickadees, and a hermit thrush or veery, although you are more apt to hear rather than actually see them.
Similarly, a pileated woodpecker might be heard or glimpsed here, as well as further down the trail. Wild turkey wander along or across the trail.
At the beaver ponds, flycatchers are well represented, with very common sightings of
least flycatcher, alder flycatcher, Eastern phoebe, and somewhat less common occurrences of Eastern kingbird. In migration, you may also see olive-sided flycatchers. You can almost always see cedar waxwings that often behave like flycatchers. It’s not unusual to see flocks of 10 to 20 waxwings any time from spring well into fall. A belted
kingfisher or two can usually be spotted checking for prey in the ponds. A very frequent presence is a pair of solitary sandpipers; occasionally other wading birds may be observed. An American bittern shows up here but if you see a bittern, it is usually flying away from you, as they are quite shy birds.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the flowers alongside the trail.
Overhead you will undoubtedly see and hear American crows and blue jays fly by or perch. Very commonly broad-winged hawks can be observed.
Cooper’s hawk, American kestrel and merlin are less common. In addition to pileated woodpecker, both hairy and downy woodpeckers are common, as well as yellow-bellied sapsucker and Northern flicker. The number and variety of ducks is usually not large, depending somewhat on the water level in the beaver ponds, but it is not unusual to see hooded merganser, wood duck, and mallard.
Song birds are varied and change a lot with the season, although some clearly nest here. You can expect to see goldfinch and sparrows, most commonly song sparrow, swamp sparrow, and white-throated sparrow. Warbler observations are quite seasonal but nesting species include common yellowthroat, yellow-rumped warbler, and ovenbird.
Others less commonly observed include palm, chestnut-sided, black-and-white, blackburnian, and magnolia warblers. The latter warblers are most often found where the alders and conifers begin toward the end of the marshes, along with black-capped chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch. Red-eyed vireos are always around during the summer, and, during migration, blue-headed vireos and an occasional yellow-throated vireo. Rusty blackbird, Eastern bluebird, and American pipit are fun species to spot here, again usually in migration.
Cherry Pond is the largest body of water in the Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge. A viewing platform for the pond is accessible by a very short side trail off Presidential Rail Trail.
The entire wildlife refuge should be considered a hotspot for birding with quite a few different habitats to visit. In addition to Cherry Pond, but not directly along the Presidential Rail Trail, are Little Cherry Pond and Mud Pond. Cherry Pond is large enough that common loons frequently visit and nest there. Great blue herons have nested as well. Many waterfowl can be seen: common goldeneye, white-winged scoter, pied-bill grebe, and wood and ring-billed ducks. At the Big Sit birding event on Columbus Day weekend in October, it’s not unusual to see more than 40 bird species just from the platform at Cherry Pond. Ruffed grouse are commonly encountered on the rail trail near the platform. Many of the bird species that are listed above for the Randolph site are seen here as well. In fact, overall, around 170 species have been seen in the wildlife refuge.
Other Birding Spots on the Rail Trail
Another site somewhat different from either of the major “hotspots” is the Randolph Community Forest extension on the south side of U.S. Route 2 known as the Farrar tract, after the family who farmed the property for many years. This site is about 3.5 miles west of the Appalachia trailhead. What was formerly a farmer’s meadow extends from the rail trail about 100 yards down to Israel’s River. It is still mowed annually to maintain the meadow. Willow flycatchers can be found here, and it is also a good place to see belted kingfishers. Among others, the meadow attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, and the river, spotted sandpipers. This open area provides good viewing overhead to see hawks and an occasional eagle flying over. Another site on the rail trail worth a look is the Moorhen Marsh wetland area just to the east of Cherry Pond. Here you may see the marsh wren or certainly hear it calling in the early summer.