Northern Forest Birds

Black-backed woodpecker - Mary Konchar.

A transition zone home to many species

Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge is located in the mixed spruce-fir/northern hardwood forest. This marks the transition zone between the deciduous (hardwood) forests, and the northern, or boreal coniferous forests. Most of the boreal forest range lies in Canada, but the southern extent reaches into northern New Hampshire. Some of the birds on the Refuge are northern birds at the southern extent of their range, and therefore are rare in New Hampshire. The following is a description of six boreal bird species found in the Umbagog Lake area: gray jay, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse, three-toed woodpecker, black-backed woodpecker and palm warbler.

Good Places to View Northern Forest Birds

The gray jay, boreal chickadee, spruce grouse and the three-toed and black-backed woodpeckers can all be found in coniferous (softwood) forest. Route 16, between Errol and Refuge Headquarters, passes many softwood patches in which to look for these birds. At the top of the hill about half way between Errol and the Refuge Headquarters, a dirt road enters from the northwest side of Route 16 ( the left side of the road coming from Errol) and is worth exploring.

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)

Description: Gray jays are large birds, typically larger than the robin. They have a gray body with a black cap and a white crown on the head. Gray jays of northern New Hampshire are darker in color then the gray jays in western North America.

Range: The gray jay is a year-round resident. In northern North America it ranges from Alaska to Newfoundland south into California, Colorado, New York, and New England. The gray jay is considered rare in New Hampshire, where it lives in coniferous forests and bogs. (Evans, 1994) Sightings of gray jays have been reported as far south as central New Hampshire. (Evans, 1994)

Diet: Gray jays have extremely varied diets, which include insects, berries, conifer seeds and fungi. They also scavenge on carrion and scraps from mammalian carcasses (Foss, 1994).

Breeding: The breeding season for gray jays begins in late February through early March when there is still snow on the ground (Evans, 1994).

Nesting: Nests are constructed of twigs, bark and mosses and are built close to the trunks of large conifer trees (Evans, 1994). The inside of the nest is lined with feather, fur, or anything else that is soft.

Boreal Chickadee (Parus hudonicus)

Other names: Brown-capped Chickadee, Hudsonian Chickadee

Description: The boreal chickadee is slightly larger then the black-capped chickadee. It has a brown cap on its head, a black “bib” around its neck, white cheek patches and a small black bill (Peterson, 1980).

Range: The New Hampshire breeding range of the Boreal Chickadee extends from the White Mountains up to northern parts of the state. The birds are commonly found in spruce-fir forests. Boreal Chickadees may be found in parts of southern New Hampshire throughout the winter months.

Diet: Boreal chickadees search conifer trees for moths and other insects.

Breeding: Starting in the late fall and continuing through early spring, boreal chickadees gather in flocks. Mating pairs form and the flock begins to separate in late April to early May. Two to three weeks after separating from the flock the female lays 6 or 7 eggs that are incubated for up to 16 days.

Nesting: Boreal chickadees are cavity nesters. Spruce, birch, and cedar trees make the best nesting sites for the birds. A pair may try out several cavities before settling on one.

Spruce Grouse (Dendragapus Candensis)

Other names: Fool Hen, Wood Partridge, Spotted Grouse 

Description: The spruce grouse is about the size of a chicken. The males have a red patch around their eyes, and a distinct black breast. Females lack the bright colors of the male. They have rusty brown, dark brown, and white barring on their bodies, with a rusty/orange bar on the tip of the tail (Peterson, 1980).

Range: The spruce grouse can be found in most parts of Canada, except for the extreme north. In the United States, spruce grouse can be found in Washington, Wyoming, Michigan and parts of Northern New England. Spruce grouse are most commonly found in dense coniferous forests on mountain ridges and in low elevation bogs (Smith, 1994). Due, in part, to the destruction of habitat in New Hampshire, the spruce grouse has become an uncommon permanent resident (Smith, 1994).

Diet: Spruce grouse forage on the ground and feed on conifer needles, new grown shrubs, fruits, flowers, fungi, land snails and small arthropods (Smith, 1994).

Breeding: Breeding in New Hampshire begins in late April. The male spruce grouse is polygamous and does not participate in nest building, incubation or raising the brood.

Nesting: Nest are located in shallow depressions in the ground. The nest is composed of dead leaves, grasses and conifer needles. The typical size of a clutch is six to eight, laid in late May to early June (Smith, 1994). Incubation occurs for 17 to 25 days.

Additional Behavior: Rather than fleeing from predators, Spruce Grouse rely on cryptic coloring to allow for concealment. When they are ready to flee, they run only short distances and then fly into trees.

Black Backed Woodpecker (Picoides articus)

Description: The black-backed woodpecker is approximately the size of an American robin. The males are all black with a white breast and a distinct yellow crown on the top of their head. Females are black with a white breast and lack the yellow crown.

Range: Black-backed woodpeckers range from Canada south into the northern United States, across the Great Lakes Region, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York. These birds are most likely to be seen in logged, burned, and swampy or spruce budworm infested areas (Kilham, Foss, 1994).

Diet: Their main food is larvae of wood-boring beetles and ants (Elrich, 1988).

Nesting: Nests are constructed in dead stumps, or living spruce or fir trees with decayed centers. Edges of forests opening make good nesting sites. Both the male and female share nest building duties; incubation of the 2 to 6 eggs is also shared (Kilham, Foss, 1994).

Population: The population of black-backed woodpeckers in New Hampshire has increased slightly due to the regeneration of spruce and fir forests. This woodpecker has been sighted in areas as far south as central New Hampshire.

Three-Toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus)

Other names: Northern Three-Toed Woodpecker, American Three-Toed Woodpecker 

Description: The three-toed woodpecker is rare at Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge. The three-toed woodpecker looks very similar to the black-backed woodpecker. It has a white breast and a yellow cap on its head. The distinguishing characteristic of this species is the white “ladder” on its back. The female does not have the yellow cap, but their backs do have the white ladder (Peterson, 1980).

Range: The three-toed woodpecker is a year round resident of Canada, northern United States and Eurasia (Foss, 1994). Although it is considered common in the west, it is a rare species in the east. In New Hampshire its range is restricted to north of the White Mountains (Foss, 1994).

Diet: Like the black-backed woodpecker, the three-toed Woodpecker feeds on wood larvae and wood boring insects (Foss, 1994).

Breeding: Bogs, and logged areas with dead standing conifers make good breeding areas in New Hampshire (Foss, 1994).

Nesting: Nests are built in May in tamarack, spruce, balsam, and cedar trees. The female lays four eggs in the nest, and both the male and female share the incubation of them. Incubation occurs for two weeks and the young will fledge the nest 22 to 26 days after hatching (Foss, 1994).

Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum)

Description: The palm warbler is a small bird. It is brown on top with yellowish/whitish streaks on its under parts. During the breeding season it has a chestnut-colored cap on its head (Peterson, 1980).

Range: Throughout Canada and the extreme northern parts of North America. The eastern subspecies of the palm warbler is found from Ontario through Newfoundland and south to northeastern New England. The eastern species spends its winters from Tennessee and North Carolina down to the Gulf Coast (Richards, 1994). The warbler is one of the earliest birds to return to New Hampshire. It passes through the state between mid April and early May (Richards, 1994).

Diet: Small beetles, gnats, mosquitoes, flies, and some vegetation make up the palm warbler's diet (Richards, 1994).

Breeding: Palm Warblers nest exclusively in bogs and boggy heaths with black spruce (Richards, 1994). Although uncommon, palm warblers breed in the Umbagog area. Breeding records are rare elsewhere in New Hampshire.

Nesting: Cup-shaped nests built out of bark, dry grass, and weed stems are lined with finer grasses and located on the ground. Sometimes the nests will be located up to four feet above the ground in spruce trees. Eggs are laid in late May through early June (Richards, 1994).

Interesting Info: The first sightings of palm warblers in New Hampshire were in the Floating Island Bog at Harper's Meadow, Errol in 1955 (Richards, 1994).

Boreal Birds of New Hampshire
Written by Katie Maguire 8/2001


Elrich, Paul, David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon and Schuster.

Foss, Carol R., Tudor Richards, Diane Evans, Steve Smith, Lawrence Kilham. 1994. Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire. Audubon Society of New Hampshire.

Peterson, Roger Tory. 1980. Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.


For More Information Please Contact

Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 240
Errol, NH 03579
Phone: (603) 482-3415