Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Eagles Steal the Show Today
February 15, 2020
By Steve Grinley
As you have probably read by now, today is the Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport. If you attend the Festival, chances are good that you will see eagles and many other raptors.
At the festival, you can attend a free one-hour morning or afternoon presentation at the Newburyport City Hall where Mary-Beth Kaeser of Horizon Wings will present two educational programs featuring raptors great and small. It is first come, first served and recommended for adults and children age 6 and over. You can also pre-register to have photos taken with a raptor for a small donation.
If you have younger children or cannot attend the City Hall presentations, you may visit the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, where you can have close looks at live hawks from the Mass Audubon Drumlin Farm Sanctuary. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters across the street, you will get to meet a few owls, also from Drumlin Farm. Both venues will have family projects, arts and crafts and more!
These indoor programs are great fun, however the best show is usually outdoors where the bald eagles, along with other area raptors, ducks, and geese are sure to put on an amazing display. I will be co-leading one of several van tours that will take you to venues along the Merrimack River in search of eagles. If you like taking pictures, there is also a morning tour for photographers. Van tours require pre-registration at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center.
The tours may be full or you may wish to visit these venues on your own. Maps of eagle viewing areas are available at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center or at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. There are birders stationed at various viewing sites along the river to spot the eagles for you. You’ll be able to view the eagles up close through spotting scopes!
If you go on your own, eagles are distinguished by their large size and enormous 7 to 8 foot wingspan. The adult bald eagle is easily recognized by its white head and tail, while the immature eagle is mostly dark-brown with some white in the body or wing linings, depending on its age.
Searching the waters and shoreline of the Merrimack can reward you with close-up views of our national birds perched, soaring, and even catching fish along the river. Eagles prefer fish but they will eat ducks or small mammals in winter. Eagles have two to three times better vision than humans – it is their most developed sense. Their keen eyesight aids in pursuit of their prey.
The eagles’ talons are its primary weapons. When diving upon its prey, it spreads its talons out in a cross-like fashion. Its hind toe is its most powerful with the longest, strongest talon. When striking, the force of impact drives the hind talon into the side of its quarry while the others encircle it. Eagles use their sharp beak to tear open their prey and will consume it bones and all. Their strong stomach acids dissolve the bones.
During your visit to the eagle viewing areas along the river, you might also encounter harriers hunting the marsh, or an occasional Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk. You may also see one of the resident peregrine falcons that regularly hunt the river. They are likely to nest in the area again this year.
Also along the river, you may watch common goldeneye, bufflehead, and handsome long-tailed ducks, as well as common and red-breasted mergansers feeding in the river. Great cormorants can also be seen fishing the waters and sometimes a wintering great blue heron or kingfisher might be found. Even a harbor seal or two have made appearances in the past.
You can also spend part of the day at Plum Island where you might find a snowy owl in the dunes or marsh along the refuge road. Several snowy owls have been spotted on the refuge this season along with red-tailed and rough-legged hawks. There have also been adult and immature bald eagles seen from many locations on the island. If birders are present with scopes, they will likely share their optics and the experience of viewing these birds up close.
For additional information regarding the festival, please contact the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center at 978-462-9998 or the Parker River Wildlife Refuge at 978-465-5753.