To those who seek out birds on the banks of the Connecticut River, there is perhaps no sight so thrilling as that of a Bald Eagle soaring upstream over icy water on a still winter morning. The eagles size and majesty are awe-inspiring, and anyone who has observed the regal bearing of an eagle as it rests on a riverside tree can easily understand why the species has been chosen as our national symbol. Even immature birds, which lack the white head and tail of the archetypal adult Bald Eagle, possess the combination of grace and power that so impress observers.
These days, a winter visitor to the river stands a decent chance of seeing an eagle, but this was not the case in years past. As recently as 1979, for example, a winter survey of the entire state of Massachusetts turned up only 9 Bald Eagles. Since then, thanks in part to an aggressive re-introduction effort carried out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, eagles have become much more common in the state. Now, about 70 eagles spend the winter in Massachusetts. The majority of these wintering eagles are found at the Quabbin Reservoir, but many also spend the winter foraging on the Connecticut River.
The eagle restoration project has been so successful that the presence of Bald Eagles in Massachusetts is no longer limited to winter. For the first time in a century, a few active eagle nests can be found in the state. One of those nests (pictured at left) is about 60 feet off the ground on an island in the Connecticut River, at Bartons Cove in Gill. The nest is monitored by a video camera thats connected to the Internet, so feel free to take a closer look at whats going on there now. At Bartons Cove, eagles typically hatch in mid-April, after a 35-day incubation period, and may remain in the nest until late July (in general, Bald Eagle chicks remain in the nest for between 70 and 90 days prior to fledging).
The increasing number of Bald Eagles in the Connecticut River Valley mirrors a nationwide trend. The eagle population in the lower 48 states, which had declined so drastically that the species was officially classified as endangered in 1978, is on the rise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service views the return of Bald Eagle as one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act, and in 1995 declared that the species was no longer endangered and downgraded its status to "threatened." More recently (1998), the USFWS announced its intention to declare the Bald Eagle "recovered," and to remove it from threatened status. In some places, such as the Pacific Northwest, eagles are becoming common even in densely inhabited areas, where some human residents view the birds (which may harass zoo animals and house pets) as pests.
But here in New England, the sight of an eagle is still sufficiently rare that the bird retains its mystique. The eagles image might be tarnished just slightly, however, if the public had more knowledge of the great birds eating habits. Bald Eagles are not averse to feeding on road-kill and other carrion, and have been known to steal prey from other, smaller birds. An eagles preferred meal, however, seems to be fresh fish, so eagles are usually found near water.