---- — NEWBURYPORT — For decades, it’s been a tradition for many bald eagle enthusiasts: They line the banks of the Merrimack River on a cold day in early January, scanning the skies for the enormous birds sailing over the landscape or sitting in riverfront trees.
The number and location of eagles is tabulated, and the figures are sent to the state. All over Massachusetts, in places where eagles are known to live, similar counts are conducted, and by the end of that January day the state’s Eagle Count is complete, and state officials have a good snapshot of the eagle population.
But that 32-year practice ends this year, as the state embarks on a new method of counting eagles that may give the region a more relevant assessment of where they are and what they are doing.
Yesterday the state announced that it will instead hold an eagle count sometime in March, the exact date is not yet determined. It’s in an effort to capture a new and positive phenomenon that has emerged both along the Merrimack River and elsewhere. Finally, eagles are starting to build nests here again, and a population of “resident nesting birds” is growing. The March count is expected to give a good showing of both the resident nesters, and the migratory eagles that spend a few months on the river.
Tom French, assistant director of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said on the lower Merrimack River alone there are 8 nesting adults, and perhaps 4 juveniles. That’s a remarkable figure, he said, considering that in 1979, when the state first started its eagle count, there were only 8 in the entire state, and none of them were nesting.
“The lower Merrimack River has been the third most important eagle habitat in the state, and it still is,” he said.
Eagles started nesting along the Merrimack about 5 years ago. One of the most visible nests is next to Amesbury’s Point Shore neighborhood, in a tree that overlooks both the Powow and Merrimack rivers. The waterways are prime feeding territory for eagles.
Bald eagles were on a path toward extinction a half century ago, but efforts to save them have been successful. They are no longer considered to be endangered, and their numbers grow each year.
The last time that a January eagle count was successfully held, in 2011, a record 107 eagles were seen across Massachusetts. The 2012 count was canceled due to bad weather.
One of the tricks of getting an accurate count of eagles is timing. Eagles tend to migrate south from their habitats in Maine and Canada as cold weather freezes rivers and prevents them from catching fish. At any given time, the population in any given spot can vary widely due to these weather-related migration patterns.
French said this year’s Massachusetts population has been influenced by the relatively mild winter to the north. There are few eagles around right now, but that will change in the coming weeks.
French said the eagle population in Massachusetts peaks in February. By that time of the year, most certainly the rivers to the north are frozen, and a healthy number of eagles can be seen along the Merrimack River. They are concentrated around Deer Island in Amesbury, the Interstate 95 bridge over the Merrimack, and lower Merrimack between Salisbury and Newburyport. There’s usually open water in these areas in wintertime, and a large population of ducks and fish — two favorite foods for eagles, French said.
The January eagle count was part of a national initiative to capture the coast-to-coast picture of the eagle population. French said there is less need to do that now that eagles are recovering.
“I always thought that the (January) eagle count week was not the best week to do it,” French said. “We were told ‘it’s not necessarily the best time for you,’ but because the count is done as a national event, it gives an idea of what the entire nation’s eagle count is.”