Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles will steal the show today
February 17, 2007
Steve Grinley

     Last Sunday’s “Eagles and Owls” bird walk was a real crowd pleaser. And we did have a crowd.

     Twenty-four participants gathered at the store on a cold, but sunny winter afternoon. The lack of wind, which has been a problem of late, made it quite pleasant. The raptors were enjoying the weather as well, as they put on quite a show.

     Our caravan of nine cars first stopped along Scotland Road based on a report that I had received about some American pipits, uncommon in winter, feeding in one of the fields there. We stopped at the reported field and it took one of the younger pairs of eyes among us to spot the pipits foraging among the tufts of grass that were exposed about the ice and snow. These striped, sparrow-like birds run across the ground, but they did put up and fly a short distance, enabling us to count 13 of them as they flashed their outer white tail feathers.

     We continued on and made our first planned stop on Old Merrill Street on the Amesbury side of the Chain Bridge. Almost immediately, an immature eagle flew across in front of us and landed on the ice in front of us, but out of site behind a tall stand of phragmites. An adult and at least two other immature eagles flew out from behind Eagle Island, made a pass along the river and returned to behind the island.

     A Cooper’s hawk also flew onto the island and perched in view. Several great cormorants were flying up and down the river while one spent most of the time swimming and diving for fish. We then headed for Ferry Landing where we saw two adult bald eagles perched directly across from us on Ram Island. An immature eagle soon flew by and perched with the two adults.

     Looking up river with the scopes, we could see eight immature bald eagles perched with one adult on the east side of Eagle Island. Several other eagles were spotted over the trees and river while we were there. It was spectacular to see so many eagles at one time!

     While we watched the eagles, a harrier hunted the marsh across on the Salisbury side and a great blue heron also flew off in that direction. Three ruddy ducks dove out of sight on our side of the river while bufflehead, common goldeneye, common and red-breasted mergansers, ring-necked ducks and lesser scaup all swam within viewing range. But it was the eagles that stole the show!

     As we proceeded to Plum Island, a male kestrel was perched on a telephone wire along the Causeway. As we stopped to watch him, he flew a little further up ahead to where some cars were pulled over. We drove up and found what was causing others to stop. A short-eared owl was perched in the sunlight on some staddles about 50 yards out in the marsh. We had a beautiful look at this owl with bright yellow eyes peering back at our scopes.

     Behind it, a couple of harriers were criss-crossing low over the marsh and soon the owl also took flight. Its boldly patterned underwing was very visible as it fluttered like a butterfly over the grasses. As we headed down the Island, we looked at every lump of snow and ice, hoping for a snowy owl.

     We stopped several times and scoped the marsh along the river, but to no avail. We did see a couple of rough-legged hawks flying directly away from us in the direction of Pine Island. Several red-tails were also circling above the mainland, quite a distance away.

     We pulled into the Warden’s Area, that was already quite filled with cars, to find a snowy owl perched atop a stick a few hundred yards north. This was the pure white male that we had seen on the Superbowl a couple of weeks back. Another short-eared owl was also flying around the same area, as was a harrier, who was not as keen about sharing his hunting territory.

     The harrier dove and swerved by the snowy several times, causing the owl to once lift his wings, but otherwise stood his ground. We continued down the refuge, searching along the way for a shrike or for other raptors. We did see a merlin perched atop a shrub on the dunes side of the road.

     We then stopped on our way back, just below the Pines, where we were told there was another snowy owl. We finally spotted one atop the osprey platform. We later saw it from the north side of the pines, perched on the dike. A flock of about eighty snow buntings glistened in the late sunlight as they flew north over the marsh.

     To cap our day, Paul Roberts pointed out a pair of adult bald eagles perched on a small island across the river. They seemed larger than life, perched in a tree above a small cabin on the island. It was a fitting ending to our Eagles and Owls experience.

     If you wish to have an eagle “experience”, plan to participate in today’s Eagle Festival that has eagle tours and ongoing events at several venues.

     The tours are full, but you can visit eagle observation areas in several areas along the river where naturalists will have spotting scopes to show you bald eagles. Maps are available at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, at the Parker River National Wildlife Festival Headquarters, at the Spencer Pierce Little Farm or at the Newburyport City Hall, all of which also have free programs throughout the day.

     For additional information go to: www.massaudubon.org/eaglefestival or call 978-462-9998. I also have a free walk tomorrow morning to look for eagles, owls and other birds, leaving from Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at 9 a.m. Pre-registration is not necessary.

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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