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