Birds & Wildlife

photo by Francesco Ticozzi
Barred Owl at Balch Hill

Birds of Balch Hill

Balch Hill is a stop on the Connecticut River Birding Trail.  Year-round residents include barred owls, ruffed grouse, turkeys, blue jays, and chickadees. Spring brings waves of warblers and other migrating birds.

No time is more exciting than the fall migration of hawks over the open summit. Red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels, and even bald eagles ride the thermals on their way south. The best hawk-watching occurs in late September to late October on bright days with a northwest wind after a spell of bad weather. On one morning in 2012, volunteer hawk watch leader David Merker saw six Bald Eagles high over Balch Hill. The following week, he recorded (in only two hours!) 246 Redtailed Hawks, a Bald Eagle, 17 Cooper’s Hawks, one Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Kestrel,  16 Turkey Vultures, 8 Ravens, and too many crows to count.

Monarch Butterfly Habitat

Balch Hill’s sunny summit meadow, full of native milkweed and other nectar-producing wildflowers, offers excellent habitat for Monarch butterflies. In 2014, we registered Balch Hill as Monarch Waystation #7639 to support monarch conservation and help assure the continuation of the monarch migration in North America. More about Monarch butterflies

Wildlife

The wildlife diversity of the Balch Hill Natural Area reflects its varied habitat, from open meadow at the summit to shrubby edges and deep forest. Older openings invite fruiting brambles that attract many diners, including bears. Balch Hill is also home to white-tailed deer, porcupine, raccoon, fisher, short-tailed weasel, skunk, red fox, snowshoe hare, red and gray squirrels. Small mammals include voles, mice, and shrews. These creatures appreciate the hiding places offered by brush piles when owls and other predators are near.

About the deer…

We’ve been watching both the deer and their snacking habits at Balch Hill for some time, and when the Town of Hanover approached us in the fall of 2013 about opening Balch Hill for a trial archery season to help thin an increasingly unhealthy herd, we gave the idea serious consideration. A survey of our Balch Hill neighbors in 2011 had indicated strong support for hunting to control the deer population. Many Balch Hill deer are noticeably smaller these days, likely due to competition.

deer exclosure 1yr results
Deer exclosure results after 1 year – blue shows # of plants/meter in areas fenced off from deer browse, compared to unfenced areas (red)

After only one year, Dartmouth forest ecology studies showed deer browse is having an impact on the Natural Area. Other studies have found that over-browsing by deer favors invasive plants, reduces cover for other wildlife, and reduces nesting bird habitat and abundance.

In 2013, the Natural Area was opened to a  limited number of archers carrying a special Town permit for the last half of deer season. No firearms were allowed. The trails and summit remained open and signs at each trailhead alerted trail users. For 2014, we listened to the larger community at a well-attended forum and again at an open meeting of the Balch Hill Stewardship Committee in September. We opened Balch Hill at the very end of the season to bow hunting from tree stands by permit only.  It turned out that most hunters had already taken their deer before we allowed hunting to begin, so results were disappointing. Only three deer were taken, despite many hours of effort.

In March, 2015, we presented testimony to the NH Fish and Game Department for its draft game management plan, prompting Fish and Game to send a delegation of its top officials to meet with us in June.

For 2015, Balch Hill was open to specially permitted hunters for the full archery season, Sept. 15 – Dec. 15.  A limited number of hunters were allowed at any one time,  again required to hunt only from tree stands by bow only (no firearms allowed).  Tree stands must be at least 50 feet from trails and a hunter cannot shoot within 300 feet of a permanently occupied home without the landowner’s permission. To facilitate a more concentrated and successful hunt at the start of the season, we closed Balch Hill to all other recreational users for the first four days of the archery season.  The Balch Hill Stewardship Committee put up hard-to-miss signs for trail users, and we had a successful season- a total of 8 deer were taken on the Preserve.

In 2016, Balch Hill will be again be open for specially permitted deer hunting during the full archery season, which runs from Sept. 15th through Dec. 15th. The entire preserve will be closed to the public for the first four days of hunting season, September 15th-18th, so that hunters can be most effective. We work diligently with neighbors, the Town of Hanover, and Dartmouth College to ensure the guidelines are clearly posted, and a letter will be mailed to each neighboring property. A survey sent to neighboring residents in 2015 showed strong support for continued hunting on Balch Hill. During the first four days of the season, blaze orange signs will be posted across every trail entrance; afterwards, signs will be posted on the kiosks and at trailheads as a reminder to use caution.

During hunting season, please wear blaze orange, make sure your children are similarly attired, and put bright vests or collars on your pets. Be aware that the nearby Oak Hill, Trescott Company lands, and Velvet Rocks areas are also open to hunting. We apologize for any inconvenience,  but want to offer a better chance to the select hunters who are helping us responsibly manage Balch Hill.  We view hunting as a useful way to manage the Natural Area in the absence of natural predators. Overall, hunting in Hanover has been increasingly successful, as recorded by New Hampshire Fish & Game. For more information on our 2015 neighbor survey results, or questions about our hunting management, please contact Program Coordinator Courtney Dragiff at cdragiff@hanoverconservancy.org.