Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagle Show at Festival Pleases All
February 18, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     If you made it to the Merrimack River Eagle Festival in Newburyport last Saturday, chances are that you saw all kinds of raptors. If you visited the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, you had close looks at some hawks. At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, you got to meet a few owls. And if you attended the morning or afternoon presentation at the Newburyport City Hall, Joe Riciardi introduced you to such raptors as a kestrel, peregrine falcon, barn owl and a magnificent golden eagle. A few lucky people even had their photo taken with the eagle!

     These indoor programs were great for all who participated, however the best show was outdoors where, once again, the bald eagles, along with a few other raptors, put on an amazing exhibition. I co-led three of the van tours and we saw eagles at almost every venue along our route. We saw eagles perched and eagles flying – adults and immatures. From the Pumping Station on Spring Street we watched a second year bird continually fish right in front of us. It would fly down, drop its large talons in the water, and grab a small fish. It then headed for a branch in a deciduous tree just upriver where we could watch it through a scope as it fed on the fish. It repeated this several times when we were there.

     There was also a pair of peregrine falcons hanging around the Whittier Bridge, sometimes perched atop the arches above the bridge. Other times we saw them perched on cross beams under the bridge. Could they be thinking about nesting there? It sure seemed so. Our van just missed them harassing a passing adult eagle, as if they were defending their territory. One of the volunteer spotters stationed at the Pumping Station site described it as “two fighter jets attacking a passing bomber.”

     We did get to see some drama at another location. From the site behind the Mersen building, we watched a red-tailed hawk do a steep dive on a passing bald eagle. The red-tail was circling high above when it saw the eagle enter its territory. The hawk folded its wings and plummeting toward the eagle, pulling up just before striking the bird that was two to three times its size!

     During our visits along the river, we encountered a couple of harriers hunting the marsh and a Cooper’s hawk. We watched common goldeneye courting, and handsome common and red-breasted mergansers feeding in the river. Great cormorants were also fishing in the river and a kingfisher flew past us and proceeded further up the river. Even a harbor seal or two made appearances. It was great fun for all – and it was all free!

     A customer showed me a couple of photos on her phone that she took this past weekend. One photo was of seven bald eagles on a sand bar between Deer island and Eagle Island during low tide. An amazing gathering! The other photo was a flight shot of an immature eagle trying to steal a fish that an adult bald eagle was carrying. More drama!

     A number of people spent part of the day on their own at Plum Island where they found up to five snowy owls along the refuge. A couple of the owls were quite close and they had photographs as well.

     If you were unable to attend the Eagle Festival and still want to see eagles and owls, you are welcome to join me on a free “Eagles and Owls Walk” this Sunday, February 19. We will meet at Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift at the Traffic Circle at 1 pm and we will carpool to look for eagles along the river and then head to Plum Island to try to find some snowy owls. The trip should last about 3 -4 hours. Everyone is welcome, but dress warmly, and bring binoculars, scopes, or field guides if you have them. Hope to see you then!

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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