Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Let the Search for Eagles Begin!
February 18, 2017
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. The milder than normal weather has not brought the numbers of eagles into the area that we have seen in years past. Usually when rivers and lakes freeze further north, more eagles arrive here to fish along the Merrimack River, parts of which stay open even during the coldest winters. 

     Whether you are joining a tour or plan to go on your own to any of the designated “eagle watching sites,” you still have a chance to see eagles this weekend. There have been eagles seen on Plum Island and along the Merrimack River over the past week. Occasionally one or two have been spotted close to the harbor.

     People have been asking where to find eagles. Usually at this time of year, bald eagles may be seen anywhere along the Merrimack River from Newburyport Harbor to West Newbury. The best viewing is 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 along Merrimack Street in Newburyport; from behind the Mercer Building (open to public today only) on Merrimack Street; 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. 

     Further up river you can try to find vantage points along River Road on the West Newbury side, or along Pleasant Valley Road on the Amesbury side. You may be lucky enough to see an eagle perched in a tree alongside either of these roads.

     The adult bald eagle with its white head and tail is easily recognized, while the immature eagles is mostly all dark-brown with some white in the body or wing linings, depending on its age. I t tasks five years for the young eagles to attain the white plumaged head and tail of a adult. Eagles are certainly distinguished by their 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 eyesight 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 weapons. 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.

     Over the next month or so will be your best chance to catch sight of bald eagles on the Merrimack River. A few local birds will likely nest again along the river, but the non-resident eagles that may be here will leave to return to their breeding grounds in New Hampshire, Maine and eastern Canada. Birds in the northeast generally nest from April to June. For those of you who escape to Florida for the winter, it may interest you to know that bald eagles in Florida breed in November and December to escape the hotter summer in the south.

     Our weekend weather is forecasted as conducive for outdoor activities. So go out this weekend to one of the 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 and, hopefully, you will get awesome views of these majestic birds.

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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