Meditations on wintering eagles

By Kristen Lindquist | Jan 12, 2011

During the colder months when many birds and humans alike head for warmer climes, one local population increases exponentially.

The Midcoast region, particularly the St. George River valley, is one of the premiere winter gathering areas for bald eagles. Dozens of eagles fly up and down the river itself, visit nearby frozen lakes and ponds to nab fish from ice fishermen, and forage along the open coastline. The Thomaston-Rockland Christmas Bird Count, which covers a territory from Rockland Harbor to Warren and out along the St. George and Cushing peninsulas, tallied 114 eagles last month.

My parents frequently enjoy eagle visitations along the Megunticook River. In view from their house is a conveniently located snag where eagles can perch just above a fast-moving section of river that almost never freezes. As surrounding waters ice up, ducks cluster in that small open patch and become, quite literally, sitting ducks for this persistent bird of prey. Eagles are nothing if not opportunists.

In a true winter spectacle, great numbers of eagles can often be observed hanging out in the trees around a big poultry processing facility and its abutting fields along Route 1 in Warren, transforming rural, Midcoast Maine into a scene right out of Alaska’s Chilkat River Eagle Preserve. Granted, the Alaskan eagles are feeding on wild, river-run salmon and these birds are clearly awaiting the dispersal of offal, but somehow that makes it no less thrilling, though a bit less romantic. I often go out of my way to drive by the farm this time of year because I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the obvious abundance of what used to be a very rare bird.

The bald eagle was an endangered species most of my life, so I remember clearly the first one I ever saw. I was a teenager, hiking along an oceanfront cliff on Mount Desert Island. An adult eagle unexpectedly soared past at almost eye level, and I couldn’t help but shout. That same urge to shout for joy still arises whenever I see one now, even though the eagle has made a tremendous comeback and is becoming a common sighting year-round, especially in coastal Maine. Thanks to the prohibition of DDT and a lot of federal assistance, including winter feeding, a form of “eagle welfare," the eagle population is now healthy and stable enough that the bird was federally de-listed in 2007. It is still protected, however, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Hanging out with a big bunch of eagles, as at the poultry farm, offers the unusual opportunity to watch them interact with one another. Sometimes if we get out of the car for a better view, we hear them vocalize, squealing at one another as they jockey for position among the branches. An eagle’s high-pitched, rather wimpy voice does not convey the dignity that befits our national symbol. That noble screech often accompanying the image of an eagle on a television ad is actually the call of a red-tailed hawk. When it comes to birds, there’s little truth in advertising.

According to Charlie Todd, the state’s eagle biologist, most eagles that breed in Maine remain here through the winter. Maine boasts one of the highest eagle populations in the lower 48 states, with more than 400 nesting pairs. In 1967, the year of my birth, there were only 21 pairs.

In winter, our biggest resident raptor congregates in shared night-time roosting trees that offer good protection from the elements. Each morning, the birds disperse on their daily quest for food. Don Reimer, a birder friend who lives in Warren right on the St. George River, regularly counts the birds in their morning flight past his house. Sixty to seventy birds are not uncommon, and on some winter days he’s even picked out an errant golden eagle among them.

Watching many birds in close proximity at the poultry farm also offers the chance to study up on confusing sub-adult plumage patterns. It takes a bald eagle four or five molts to attain that clean, white-headed and –tailed plumage we all readily recognize, and which indicates the bird has attained breeding maturity. Until it does, however, it looks less like what we think of as an eagle and more like some large, generic hawk. An eagle under the age of five is generally dark all over with motley patches of white throughout the underwing and belly feathers. By its third year, the head begins to look white, but even a fourth molt bird may show a few black feathers in the head and tail, making it look a bit like an overgrown osprey.

As with many larger, slow-maturing birds, the bald eagle pairs for life and can live to be 20 or more. As early as next month, mated pairs will renew their courting and begin mending their nests. According to Charlie Todd, paired adult birds on the Maine coast generally linger in the vicinity of their nests year-round. Sub-adult eagles, however, may wander far and wide. Charlie has learned that eagles from Maine have been seen from maritime Canada to the Carolinas and inland as far west as Ohio.

Younger birds wintering in Maine may have come from as far away as Michigan and Saskatchewan. Migration routes and wintering areas are used habitually by individual eagles, although once it gets here, a bird may still roam. Charlie recounted for me the story of one coastal Maine eagle that for reasons known only to itself spent a couple of days visiting the Connecticut coast. I couldn’t help but wonder if the bird was looking for more abundant food sources or perhaps simply better company. But like many of us from Maine, it must have realized that there’s no place like home, and it soon returned.

 

Kristen Lindquist is a published poet who works as the development director for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden.

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