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.