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.”