Unfortunately, this weekend’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival has been canceled due to the storm. I was looking forward to leading one of the van tours and showing people bald eagles. There have been a good number of eagles on the river in recent weeks.
I see eagles almost every morning on my way to work while traveling over Deer Island and the Hines and Chain bridges from Amesbury to Newburyport. Groups of photographers are often gathered there in quest of that perfect eagle photo. Since I can’t lead a tour and help folks to see eagles, I thought I would repeat some of the information you may need to enjoy eagles along the river in the weeks to come:
This time of year, 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 the harbor west to beyond Maudslay State Park. Eagles are often seen along the refuge on Plum Island.
Good vantage points along the Merrimack River include the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center and Cashman Park, or from Newburyport Basin Marina along Merrimack Street in Newburyport, Deer Island at the Chain Bridge looking down river toward Eagle Island. The Pumping Station off of Spring Lane, and Main Street’s Point Shore neighborhood in Amesbury are also good spots to spy an eagle. On Point Shore, the area near Lowell’s Boat Shop or Alliance Park is ideal for looking across the river to see eagles perched in the pines and birches near the Newburyport Pumping Station and Maudslay State Park.
Due to the cold weather and icing in the river, areas where the frozen Merrimack open to flowing water are the best places to look, as eagles will fish there. Bald eagles are also occasionally spotted in the harbor from the sea wall on Water Street, or from the Salisbury side of the river. The eagles are sometimes found riding on ice floes along the river. The next month or so will be your best chance to catch sight of bald eagles on the Merrimack River this season. Except for a few local birds that may nest again along the river, the majority of these raptors will 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. 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 eyesight helps them pursue 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.
So get out there to one of these sites along the river and scan the trees and the sky for eagles. Binoculars or a spotting scope may help. There may also be other birders at these sites who will be willing to share their optics with you. You may be rewarded with views of these majestic national birds.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.