Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagle Viewing Highlights Festival
February 16, 2008
Steve Grinley

     As you have probably read by now, today is the Bald Eagle Festival in Newburyport. Free guided tours are being conducted every half hour to see the bald eagles along the Merrimack River. There are also birders stationed at various sites along the river to spot the eagles for you if you go on your own. You’ll be able to view the eagles up close through spotting scopes. For those that need a more personal experience, there are two free shows at City Hall, 11 am and 1:30 pm, that will feature live eagles and other raptors. Other programs are being held during the day at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center and at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge Headquarters Building.

     I had an “Eagles and Owls” birding trip last Sunday afternoon and we went to Cashman Park where we saw an adult and an immature bald eagle perched in a tree across the river. The eagles were a life bird for at least one participant. We had at least one more immature eagle flying by. We then headed to Plum Island in search of owls, and we encountered another immature eagle perched in a tree along the causeway. The bird obliged by flying right over us, giving everyone great looks. The snow squalls thwarted our efforts to see owls, though a couple of us caught a glimpse of a short-eared owl before it disappeared over a dune.

     People have been asking at the store, and at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, if the eagles are around and where could they find them. The eagles should remain here into March. Except for a few local birds that may attempt to nest again upriver, the majority of these raptors will leave soon thereafter to return to their breeding grounds in New Hampshire, Maine and eastern Canada. 

     Until their departure, bald eagles may be seen anywhere along the Merrimack River from Newburyport Harbor to West Newbury. The more frozen the river, the more they concentrate in the lower part of the river. The best local viewing is usually along the river from Cashman Park west to beyond the Route 95 bridge near Maudslay State Park. Good vantage points are from Cashman Park or from any of the marinas along Merrimack Street in Newburyport; from Deer Island at the Chain Bridge looking down river toward Eagle Island; from Old Merrill St. to the right just across the Chain Bridge in Amesbury looking down on the river; or from Main Street, Amesbury looking across the river for eagles perched in the pines and birches near the Newburyport Pumping Station and Maudslay State Park. As many as eight eagle have been seen from the Pumping Station off Spring Lane on the Newburyport side, where the frozen Merrimack often opens to flowing water, allowing the eagles to fish. Bald eagles are also occasionally spotted in the harbor from the seawall on Water Street and several have been seen on Woodbridge Island the past couple of weeks, with best viewing from the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center. 

     The adult bald eagle with white head and tail is easily recognized, while the immature eagle is mostly dark brown with some white in the body or wing linings, depending on its age. Even the young birds are distinguished by their large size and enormous 7-8 foot wingspan. Searching the waters and shoreline of the Merrimack can reward you with great 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. 

     If you miss the Festival, or you attend and just can’t get enough, go out to one of the sights along the river and scan the trees and the sky for eagles. If birders are there with scopes, they will likely share their optics and the experience of viewing these majestic birds up close.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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