, Newburyport, MA

February 6, 2014

Winged wonders

Eagle Festival celebrates Merrimack River's winter visitors

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, bald eagles don’t scream.

Their natural sound is not nearly as dramatic — or noisy.

“It’s kind of chirpy and high-pitched,” said Melissa Vokey, administrative manager at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport. “The big, loud cry in movies, that’s dubbed. That’s the sound of the red-tailed hawk.”

That’s just one of the facts that visitors to Saturday’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival will learn. More than 1,000 people are expected to flock to Newburyport and Amesbury to catch a glimpse of the birds currently wintering along the Merrimack River.

Co-hosted by the Joppa Flats Education Center and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the free festival offers a number of indoor and outdoor activities, including guided sightings of the eagles and other wintering river birds, raptor demonstrations, and family nature activities.

“This is just one of the ways we talk to people to let them know what’s happening around us,” Vokey said. “We kind of live in a wildlife sanctuary, just by living in Newburyport and Amesbury. Here at the mouth of the Merrimack River, the wildlife is just fantastic. It’s all among us.

“This is a great way for people to come to be introduced to nature,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn that you don’t know.”

New this year, organizers have been running an Eagle Eye Scavenger Hunt, with participants encouraged to visit 23 businesses in Newburyport to find eagle facts. Those filling out hunt sheets, which are due Saturday, are eligible to win prizes.

“That’s been a lot of fun,” Vokey said. “People have been really enjoying that.”

With last year’s festival canceled due to the February blizzard, organizers are happy about the timing of this week’s snowstorm. They plan to spend today and tomorrow clearing paths and putting down sand, Vokey said.

Though she said there will be plenty of wide-open, plowed spaces to view eagles, she encourages visitors to wear sturdy shoes, as there are some spots that will be snowy and more difficult to navigate, such as Deer Island in Amesbury.

In addition to this being a great year to see the bald eagles, which seek out the Merrimack River because it always has the open water they need to feed on fish and ducks, the festival is an opportune time to spot snowy owls.

“Since they’re going to be in Newburyport, they can go out to Salisbury or anywhere on Plum Island to see a snowy owl,” Vokey said. “They can really do eagles and owls in one day trip this year.

“Last year, we didn’t have any until the end of winter,” Vokey said of the owls. “We’ve got more than 10. They are all over.”

Returning to offer an up-close look at raptors in two programs on Saturday is Tom Ricardi of the Massachusetts Bird of Prey Rehabilitation Facility in Conway.

Ricardi won’t have an eagle this year, but he said he will have seven or eight birds, including owls, hawks, falcons and a turkey vulture. He will talk about wildlife conservation and what people can do to help in their own backyards and will show a 10-minute slide presentation on the captive breeding of bald eagles.

“This has just been my whole life,” he said. “I’m a retired game warden, and I’ve been doing raptor rehab and captive breeding for over 35 years.”

Though one of the festival’s regular “hot spots,” the Spring Lane pumping station in Newburyport, is closed due to construction, a new location has been secured directly across the river in Amesbury, at the former Andrews Boat Shop.

“It’s just a beautiful boat shop building with space on either side of it,” Vokey said.

Started in 2006 to celebrate the resurgence of bald eagles in the area and the lower Merrimack Valley’s first known nesting pair, the festival has always been a popular draw for birders and non-birders alike eager to spot the emblem of America, Vokey said.

“Eagles are called charismatic megafauna,” she said. “They’re like tigers or elephants. People really find they connect to these creatures that live in the wild, because they look at them and associate human characteristics with them, like courage and strength and nobility.

“It symbolizes the things that we honor about being American, so they want to see them out in the wild,” she said. “They just get such a kick of it, and it’s so wonderful to help them do that.”

The festival is sponsored by The Daily News and the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank.

If you go

What: Merrimack River Eagle Festival

When: Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Joppa Flats Education Center, 1 Plum Island Turnpike, and Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, 6 Plum Island Turnpike, as well as other locations in Newburyport and Amesbury

How much: Free

More information: 978-462-9998 or

Schedule of events

9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Visit eagle hot spots along the Merrimack River. Locations include Andrews Boat Shop and Lowell’s Boat Shop on Main Street in Amesbury, Deer Island in Amesbury, the Mersen building on Merrimac Street in Newburyport, and Cashman Park in Newburyport.

9 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Van tours depart every half-hour from Chamber of Commerce (full).

10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — Family activities at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters and Joppa Flats Education Center. Live owls and hawks from Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm.

10 to 11 a.m. and 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. — Raptor demonstrations with Tom Ricardi of the Massachusetts Bird of Prey Rehabilitation Facility, Newburyport City Hall. For ages 6 and up; first-come, first-served.

11:15 to 11:45 a.m. and 12:30 to 1 p.m. — Pose for a photo with a raptor, Newburyport City Hall. $10 donation; reservations recommended at 978-462-9998.