Flying High – The Merrimack River’s Bald Eagles

landing-adult-BE-_-Bill-Byrne_MassWildlife_5In the dead of winter, when it’s cold and frosty and many of the less hardy birds have fled south (along with some people) the eagles return to Massachusetts. You can see them soaring over the Merrimack River, lazily riding the air currents and occasionally plunging down to the water to catch a bullhead or an eel. They are fast enough to grab a duck in mid-flight, agile enough to seize a songbird on the wing.

And they’re coming to a backyard near you.

Well, perhaps not to downtown Andover or Haverhill. But if you live near open water and have a selection of tall trees for nesting, your chances of spotting a bald eagle in the Merrimack Valley may never be better. Eleven of the raptors were seen in the Valley during the annual eagle survey conducted in January 2011 by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. And a total of 107 eagles were counted in Massachusetts.

With a 6-foot wingspan, and weighing in at about 12 pounds, eagles capture the attention of birders and nonbirders alike.

“These guys are in a whole different category — they’re so big, so striking. I get to see them up close and personal, and it’s still on a grand scale,” says Dr. Tom French, assistant director of the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program at MassWildlife.

Pat Huckery and Eric Amati of MassWildlife banding a 2010 West Newbury eagle chick.

Pat Huckery and Eric Amati of MassWildlife banding a 2010 West Newbury eagle chick. Photos courtesy of MassWildlife / Bill Byrne.

Threatened by environmental changes and pesticides, eagles were declared an endangered species by the federal government in 1967. Like several states, Massachusetts opted to speed the eagles’ recovery and in 1982 introduced chicks “adopted” from around the country to be raised in the wild here. The birds take about five years to reach maturity, and in 1989 Massachusetts’ effort paid off with a chick-filled nest on the Quabbin Reservoir in Belchertown.

The Merrimack Valley, however, remained nest free until about six years ago, when MassWildlife received a call from a very excited birder in West Newbury.

“The nest was in the craziest place, in a tree over someone’s backyard in a residential neighborhood,” recalls Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife District Supervisor, Patricia Huckery, who says eagles don’t usually build so close to homes. “If you didn’t know exactly where to look, you would never have found it.”

The birder, who lived near the nest, called in updates on a regular basis. “When we banded [the fledglings], it was a historic event,” Huckery said. “The birder who discovered it had a bunch of friends over and a magnum of Champagne.”

Several nests have been built subsequently, and although Huckery prefers not to reveal their exact locations, she will say that eagle nests have also been spotted in Haverhill, Methuen and Salisbury.

Built of sticks and sometimes spanning 5 feet, the nests may be used repeatedly. Unfortunately, they can grow unwieldy and sometimes come down, ruining chick prospects for that season.

Those who want a guarantee of seeing the birds—which are no longer on the federal endangered list, but remain on the state’s list—should check out the Merrimack River Eagle Festival. Scheduled in Newburyport, it will feature tours of eagle-spotting locations and eagle-themed events.

Birders with an eagle eye may be surprised by where the raptors turn up. There have been unconfirmed reports of eagles around Lake Cochichewick in North Andover, Huckery says.

Many eagles seen in December are juveniles and migrants passing through the state on their way to warmer climes. “If you see an adult in March or April, it really perks our interest,” says French, noting that it’s likely that the bird is nesting.

Nesting eagles may or may not be with the same partner as in the past. Although the birds mate for life, they’ll quickly pair up again if their mate dies. “They’re monogamous for life, but they don’t mourn for a minute,” he says.

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For more information:
Joppa Flats Education Center
One Plum Island Turnpike l Newburyport, Mass.
(978) 462-9998
www.MassAudubon.org/Nature_Connection/Sanctuaries/Joppa_Flats/index.php

MassWildlife 
Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife
www.Mass.gov/MassWildlife

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