Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Treat Your Family to the Eagle Festival
February 02, 2019
By Steve Grinley
Next Saturday, February 9, is this year’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport. If you attend, you will likely see eagles as well as many other raptors. At the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, you will get close looks at live hawks at a program there. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, you will meet a few live owls. And if you attended the morning or afternoon presentation at the Newburyport City Hall, you may be introduced to such raptors as falcons, owls and eagles!
These indoor programs are great fun for adults and children, however the best show will be outdoors where, once again, the bald eagles, along with other raptors, will put on an amazing show. Van tours will visit a number of observation venues along the river to see eagles and other raptors, ducks and other wildlife. Whether you join a tour or plan to go on your own to any of the designated “eagle watching sites,” you will likely see eagles.
With January having been so cold, more eagles are arriving from their frozen habitat up north to 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 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, 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.
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 eagles are also being seen regularly on the Parker River refuge on Plum Island.
During visits along the river, one may also see harriers or a rough-legged hawk hunting the marsh or, perhaps, a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk. You might watch bufflehead or common goldeneye courting, and watch handsome common and red-breasted mergansers feeding in the river. Great cormorants also fish in the river, and kingfishers and great blue herons have been spotted 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 the local eagles that may nest again along the river, the majority of eagles will leave in March and April to return to their breeding grounds in New Hampshire, Maine and eastern Canada.
You can also spend part of the day on your own 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. Bald eagles have been seen along the Hellcat dike, and as they hunt over the marshes. If birders are present with scopes, they will likely share their optics and the experience of viewing these birds up close.
Most of the tours and the indoor and outdoor experiences during the Festival are FREE! For additional information, please contact the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center at 978-462-9998 or the Parker River Wildlife Refuge at 978-465-5753. 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! Hope to see you there.
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