Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles continue to put on a show
February 24, 2007
Steve Grinley

     As you have probably read by now, or hopefully experienced, the Bald Eagle Festival was a smashing success. About 20 to 25 bald eagles, the most in more than a decade, put on a spectacular show. Whether you joined a tour or went on your own to any of the designated “eagle watching sites,” you were sure to see eagles. I had a birding trip Sunday morning and we went to the Ferraz Shawmut building, where we watched two adult and two immature eagles on an ice float, traveling up river on the incoming tide!

     We saw nine eagles from that one spot. We later went to Plum Island and watched a snowy owl devour voles less than 50 yards from the Refuge road near Lot 3. A short-eared owl was also hunting the marsh in midday.

     All week, people have been asking at the store, as well as at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, if the eagles are still around and, if so, where they could find them. The next few weeks may be your last chance to catch sight of bald eagles on the Merrimack River this season. Except for a few local birds that may attempt to nest again upriver, the majority of these raptors will soon 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.

     Until their departure, 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 Cashman Park west to beyond the Interstate 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 Merrily 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 nine eagle have been seen from the Pumping Station off Spring Lane on the Newburyport side, where the frozen Merrimack opens to flowing water, allowing the eagles to fish. Bald eagles are also occasionally spotted in the harbor from the seawall on Water Street or from the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Center. They are even sometimes found riding on ice floats down the river as we saw them on Sunday.

     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 if you missed the festival, or you were there and just can’t get enough, go out to one of these sites along the river and scan the trees and the sky for eagles. If birders are there with scopes, they will certainly let you have close-up 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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