Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Eagles and Vultures Highlight Breeding Bird Survey
June 26, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     Margo and I spent last weekend working on our Breeding Bird Atlasing and it turned out to be an amazing time. We started out on Saturday morning looking for access to the Salisbury side of the Merrimack River. Most of that area is private land, but we were able to find a public way to the river. Our hope was to find some marsh birds along the edges.

     We made our way through a mixed forest of pine and deciduous trees. We heard the flute-like song of a wood thrush, and pine warblers were singing their buzzy song from high up in the pines. Chickadees and titmice accompanied us on our walk.

     We came to a small clearing and an adult bald eagle emerged from a tall pine tree in front of us. It flew around, calling its not-so-intimidating call, and then flew out of sight. The clearing opened up more in front of us, and, as soon as it did, we saw a huge nest at the top of a pine across the clearing. The adult bald eagle was perched next to the nest, continuing to call. A bald eagle’s nest!

     We only had our binoculars and Margo’s camera with us and we couldn’t make out any activity in the nest. Margo took some pictures, and we could barely make out what might have been two eyes and a beak from within the nest in one of the photos. We didn’t want to disturb the adult bird anymore, so we headed into a nearby field, out of sight of the nest.

     In the field we found a pair of indigo buntings, some scarlet tanagers, a catbird and nest, a pair of towhees, and rose-breasted grosbeaks singing on the forested edge. Margo was trying to take pictures of a male scarlet tanager in a tree not far from her when the bird started flying toward her. It landed almost at her feet, and certainly startled her, but it quickly returned to the nearby branch. We couldn’t figure out the reason for the “attack!”

     We never found adequate access and viewing of the river through the thick foliage and undergrowth. We could hear redwings and swamp sparrows in the marsh beyond but viewing was impossible. So we retreated, happy to have found the eagle nest in our newest breeding block. These were likely the same pair of eagles that nested on Carr Island last year. Their nest tree was destroyed this year during one of our spring storms.

     We headed over to the Salisbury Industrial Park where we checked on some of the birds we had found previously. The great blue heron nest now contained only three youngsters, where we had seen four previously. The scruffy looking babies were peering down over the edge of the nest as if looking for their lost sibling.

     The highlight of this visit was the discovery of spotted sandpiper chicks. Two little puff balls were following a parent around in the vicinity of where we had found a nest with four eggs a couple of weeks ago. It was funny to see the little ones “teeter”, or bob their tails up and down, just like the adults. Very cute!

     Sunday morning, we met up with Phil Brown to check on the turkey vulture nest in the Downfall Wildlife Management Area in Byfield that I reported on about six weeks ago. We figured that the eggs would have hatched by now and the young birds should be two to three weeks old, if all was well. To our delight, there were, in fact, two large balls of white down feathers that we could view on the nest with our binoculars. Their black, featherless faces showed an ugly expression that only a mother could love. They hissed at us constantly, and an adult bird circled briefly overhead. We stayed only long enough to document the event. Phil got some incredible pictures which I share with you here

     We then decided to take Phil over to the eagle’s nest and see if we could find more evidence of young. Phil brought his large camera with him, and I brought my scope. This time we could clearly see a single eaglet in the nest! In fact, the eaglet was quite active and, at one time, sat up on the edge of the nest. The adult birds were not around, but, again, we didn’t stay long. Phil got some great shots and I can share one of them here with you. Seeing young eagles and young vultures in their nests in the same weekend was very incredible!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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