NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 25, 2014

Bald eagle bonanza

High number of sightings keeps birders busy

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Participants in today’s 11th annual Superbowl of Birding will have no problem checking the bald eagle off their lists.

Both adult and immature birds have been spotted all along the lower Merrimack River in the past two weeks, said Bill Gette, sanctuary director at the Joppa Flats Education Center. The mature males and females are unmistakable with their white heads and tails, while the young ones are primarily brown.

“There has certainly been no difficulty finding them,” Gette said yesterday. “It’s certainly nice to see so many of them.”

Sue McGrath, the founder and program designer of the Newburyport Birders, said she saw 13 bald eagles last Friday, from the Gillis Bridge in Newburyport up to the Haverhill side of the Rocks Village Bridge.

“The sightings seem to be very regular and in the usual places,” said McGrath, who will be leading outdoor classes on bald eagles in February. “We’re certainly seeing them where we usually see them, and we’re seeing them in pretty big numbers.”

“They’re doing very well,” said Tom French, an assistant director with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “The winter numbers are pretty high in the state.”

French said that the state’s spring survey showed 35 nesting pairs, with four of them along the Merrimack River. The nests are located in Amesbury, Haverhill, Methuen and Tyngsborough.

“They’re the same traditional four they’ve had for a while,” he said, noting that the Haverhill pair usually nests in West Newbury and that the Amesbury pair has previously nested in Salisbury and Newburyport.

“The Merrimack River in winter really sucks in eagles,” he said. “I would predict that this is a big year for them on the Merrimack, and the reason for that is the polar vortex. You get all that really cold weather, and it freezes everything up north.”

The tidal flow and swift currents in the river mean that there are always ice-free sections where ducks and other wintering birds can feed. This winter, there has also been an icebreaking boat clearing the channel leading from downtown Newburyport to the Interstate 95 Whittier Bridge. A new bridge is currently being built, and the water must be kept open to allow for construction-related boating traffic.

However, Gette and French both said that the icebreaker probably isn’t affecting the numbers and that the freezing temperatures are really the driving force behind the presence of the eagles, which are feeding on fish and ducks, as well as dead deer and seals. McGrath said she has seen them grabbing eastern cottontail rabbits, too.

“They’re always happy to get a free meal,” Gette said. “They’re very patient.”

Gette said the eagles will study the ducks, figuring out “when they come up and how long they’re staying down.” Once they figure out the pattern, they will hover over the spots where the ducks come up.

With chilly temperatures expected to stick around, Gette said it should be a great year for the Merrimack River Eagle Festival, which is set for Feb. 8 and co-hosted by the Joppa Flats Education Center and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.

“We call eagles ‘ooh-ahh’ birds,” Gette said. “Despite the cold weather, I really encourage people to get out. The Merrimack River is just beautiful this time of year.”

Where to spot eagles Cashman Park, Newburyport Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Plum Island Ice outside the Joppa Flats Education Center, Newburyport Deer Island, Amesbury Lowell's Boat Shop/Point Shore, Amesbury Salisbury Beach State Reservation Behind the Towle Office Building, Merrimack Street, Newburyport