Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Eagle Festival Is A Great Show
February 01, 2014
By Steve Grinley
Next Saturday, February 8, is this year’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport. If you attend, you will likely see many kinds of raptors. If you visit the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, you had close looks at some hawks at a program there. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, you may meet a few owls. And if you attended the morning or afternoon presentation at the Newburyport City Hall, you may be introduced to such raptors as a kestrel, peregrine falcon, barn owl or a golden eagle.
These indoor programs are great fun for all who participate, however the best show will be outdoors where, once again, the bald eagles, along with a few other raptors, will put on an amazing exhibition. Once again I will co-lead three of the van tours and we plan to see eagles at almost every venue along our route. Whether you are joining a tour or plan to go on your own to any of the designated “eagle watching sites,” you will surely see eagles.
All week, people have been asking where they can find eagles. With January having been so cold, more eagles are arriving from their frozen habitat up north and they fish the areas of the Merrimack River that stay open. This time of year, bald eagles may be seen anywhere along the river from Newburyport Harbor to West Newbury.
The best local viewing is usually along the river from the harbor west to beyond the Whittier (Interstate 95) bridge near Maudslay State Park. Good vantage points are from the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center; from Cashman Park or from Newburyport Basin Marina along Merrimack Street in Newburyport; from the Mercer Building (open to public the day of the festival only); from Deer Island at the Chain Bridge looking down river toward Eagle Island; or from Main Street, Amesbury, near Lowell’s Boat Shop, looking across the river for eagles perched in the pines and birches near the Newburyport Pumping Station and Maudslay State Park.
Due to the cold weather and icing in the river, areas along the river where the frozen Merrimack opens to flowing water, allowing the eagles to fish, are the best places to look. Bald eagles are also occasionally spotted in the harbor from the sea wall on Water Street, or from the Salisbury side of the river. Several are being seen regularly on the Parker River refuge on Plum Island.
During visits along the river, one may also encounter harriers or a rough-legged hawk hunting the marsh or, perhaps, a Cooper’s hawk. You might watch common goldeneye courting, and handsome common and red-breasted mergansers feeding in the river. Great cormorants also fish in the river and kingfishers have appeared in years past. Even a harbor seal or two may make an appearance.
The next month or so will be your best chance to catch sight of bald eagles on the Merrimack River this season. The Festival will make it easier for you to find eagles with experience birders stationed all along the river with high-powered optics for closer viewing. Except for a few local birds that may nest again along the river, the majority of these raptors will leave in March and April to return to their breeding grounds in New Hampshire, Maine and eastern Canada.
Whether you join an organized program, or visit the designated sites on your own next Saturday, it is sure to be great fun for all – and it is all free!
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