Isles of Shoals (NH)

Tips for Birding

A tour around Star Island
On the boat ride out to Star Island check for seabirds that you would typically see along the coast at that time of year. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels can be common in summer and alcids are frequently seen in late fall and winter. As you approach the Isles you will probably notice terns commuting to and from the White and Seavey Islands colony. Watch for the more elongated, frosty appearance of Roseate Terns among the Commons. Black Guillemots and Common Eiders nest on the islands, especially on the Maine side, and are frequently seen during the final approach. During the colder months continue watching for other alcids and ducks. Also note that though restrooms are typically available during the summer months, availability is questionable at other seasons. Ask your captain for the latest information on facilities. Once you are off the boat and ready to begin birding, check the brushy area stretching between the wharf and the gazebo along the northwestern end of the island. Passerines may be hidden in any of the bushes on the island. It is usually worth a hike up to the gazebo for a quick scan of nearby rocks and waters. Always keep an ear or eye to the sky out here as migrant shorebirds or other species frequently fly past overhead. Once you have scanned at the gazebo head back down to the wharf and take a right on the trail leading along the shore. You may want to take your first right off here and check the sparse vegetation behind the tennis courts for birds. After that, head back down toward the main trail leading east along the shoreline. You will pass by some hedgerows of salt spray rose and some larger trees. “Pish” around any vegetation for passerines. Also, scan along the shoreline here as any shorebirds passing through may stop in the relatively calm water here behind the breakwater. Continuing down the trail, and just before it curves to the right and away from the water, is the wastewater treatment plant. This can be an excellent spot to look for sparrows and warblers. Also, check the area around the manure pile just across the trail.

Continue up the trail as it ascends a small hill. Take the trail off to the right here which leads to some spruce trees and buildings. Warblers and winter finches frequently congregate in these spruces because they are the largest trees on the island. Return to the main trail when you have checked the spruces and take a right. Keep checking the shrubs for passerines. Take an immediate left here to a barn overlooking a small pond. Check the pond for night-herons, ducks, or passerines stopping in for a drink, then continue back to the main trail. Take a left to continue towards the center of the island. Soon you will see a stone wall with an old turnstile on your left. Continue straight past this without passing through the turnstile. Keep straight until you see an opening on the left before the houses start again. Scan the rocks and water from here and check around the small vegetable garden for passerines. Next, continue back to the turnstile and pass through it. You now start descending into some thicker vegetation. Pass by the large Tucke Monument checking everywhere for birds. You will descend into a seasonally wet area where it frequently pays to sit down and listen for a while. This is a good area for flycatchers, thrushes, and warblers. Continue straight when you are done and toward the south end of the island. You will step down a small ledge with some denser shrubs to check for warblers. Continue out onto the exposed rocks until you have a good view of the ocean. Watch your step for gull and even Spotted Sandpiper nests, however, during the summer! This southeast corner of the island can be a good place to scan. Shearwaters and Northern Gannet are to be looked for. Common Murre and Atlantic Puffin have recently occurred even during the summer! Look along the shore for shorebirds, especially Purple Sandpipers and Sanderlings in the fall, winter, spring, and rarely summer. When you are finished here head back north and over the little ledge. A small trail leads along the top of the rocks off to the right here. Keep watching down to your left for passerines as you walk. Also, scan off to the right for sea ducks and shorebirds. This is possibly the most reliable area in the state for Harlequin Duck. This trail will bring you to the northeastern edge of the island and dump you back into the area with the pond and barn.

If you still have time to bird, head back to areas that were especially active, do some scanning offshore, explore some new areas, or check out some of the local buildings including the museum and hotel (if they are open). You have to hit Star Island right to have a great day birding. Some days you will see very little (aside from the scenery) while other days birds will be dripping from every tree. Keep an eye on the weather and look for offshore winds following southerly (spring) or northerly (fall) air flows. Some real rarities have been seen out here in the past including birds like Least Bittern, Clapper Rail, Burrowing Owl, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and LeConte’s Sparrow in addition to rare, but more frequent species, like Harlequin Duck, King Eider, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, American Oystercatcher, Golden-winged Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Clay-colored Sparrow.

The Other Islands
The smaller islands in New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals can also be productive. White and Seavey Islands have a tern colony containing numerous Common, many Roseate, and a few Arctic Terns. Occasionally other species of terns join the throngs here and rare species have included Royal, Caspian, Forster’s, Black, and once a Sooty Tern! Sometimes an American Oystercatcher will stop by for a visit here. Keep an eye out around the island for sea ducks, shorebirds, and alcids in season.

Lunging Island and adjacent Square Rock provide roosting spots for cormorants and other species. Though Great Cormorants are common in winter, they are quite rare in summer. This, however, is the best area to look for them at that season.

Birds of Interest

A large colony of terns nests on White and Seavey Islands and biologists studying the terns have reported some interesting sightings in recent years. Winter birding, though less explored, can be productive. The Isles of Shoals Christmas Bird Count frequently records numbers of Harlequin Ducks, alcids, kittiwakes, and other species that are tough to come by along the immediate coast. Interesting land birds may also linger into December to be counted on this trip.

About Isles of Shoals

See all hotspots at Isles of Shoals

The Isles of Shoals comprise a small archipelago that straddles the New Hampshire/Maine border about 5 miles off the coast. Star Island, Lunging Island, and White and Seavey Islands are the major islands in New Hampshire but are surrounded by plentiful small ledges. Like many islands off the coast, these can be very productive as migrant traps in spring and fall. Water birds are also plentiful around the islands year-round.

About New Hamsphire Coastal Waters

See all hotspots at New Hamsphire Coastal Waters

The New Hampshire Coastal Waters extend from New Castle on the border with Maine to Seabrook on the border with Massachusetts.

For pelagic trips, familiarize yourself with eBird's pelagic protocol and use the appropriate personal locations or eBird hotspots

The eBird pelagic protocol applies to checklists that are made farther than two miles offshore on oceans, seas, or large lakes. Choose the Pelagic Protocol option from the ‘Other’ menu of Observation Types. Please note that we still have much to learn about seabird distribution, so we encourage you to add photos and notes to document your sightings on your checklists! 

If you’re moving: Count for up to 60 minutes on each checklist; stopping at the 1-hour mark. Record the distance traveled (ideally with eBird Mobile Tracks), adjust the distance estimate for backtracking as you would a traveling checklist, and choose a location on the map for where you started that checklist period. Repeat this process throughout the trip until you return to within two miles of shore.

If you’re anchored: Keep a checklist for as long as you’re anchored, and then follow the above instructions once you start to move again.