Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles Steal the Show at Today’s Festival
February 12, 2011

By Steve Grinley

     Today is the annual Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport, co-hosted by the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. More than a dozen bald eagles are putting on a show in the area. Whether you are joining a tour (which are now all full) or plan to go on your own to any of the designated “eagle watching sites,” you will surely see eagles. I saw an adult bald eagle from Cashman Park on Thursday and three eagles were seen at the Salisbury Beach State Reservation that day. The Wednesday morning birding group from Joppa saw five bald eagles near the Pumping Station on Spring Lane.

     All week, people have been asking at the store, as well as at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, where they can find eagles. This time of year, bald eagles may be seen anywhere along the Merrimack 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 today only); from Deer Island at the Chain Bridge looking down river toward Eagle Island; from the Pumping Station off Spring Lane; 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.

     The next month or so will be your best chance to catch sight of bald eagles on the Merrimack River this season. Except for a few local birds that may nest again along the river, the majority of these raptors wil leave to return to their breeding grounds in New Hampshire, Maine and eastern Canada. Those leaving here for more northern breeding grounds will nest April to June, as do the majority of bald eagles that nest in central Massachusetts. For those of you that escape to Florida for the winter, it may interest you to know that eagles in Florida breed in November and December to escape the hottest portion of year.

     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. The eagles are sometimes found riding on ice floes along the river. This year, the high amount of snow provides additional challenges for getting to the sites and the edge of the river to view the eagles.

     The adult bald eagle with its white head and tail is easily recognized, while the immature eagle is mostly all dark-brown with some white in the body or wing linings, depending on its age. It is distinguished by its large size and enormous 7- to 8-foot wingspan.

     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. Their keen eye sight helps in pursuit of their prey. Eagles have two to three times greater vision than do humans – it is their most developed sense.

     The eagles’ talons are its real weapon. 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.

     So go out to one of these sites along the river and scan the trees and the sky for eagles. If you go today, during the festival, there will be naturalists stationed at most sites with spotting scopes to help you get awesome views of these majestic birds.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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