MERRIMAC — Bald eagle sightings have been fairly sparse along the Merrimack River this winter, but on Lake Attitash, the great birds have been delighting residents with a dramatic showcase of wild behavior.
In all the years that Veronica Wolfe has lived on the Merrimac shoreline of the 360-acre lake, she said it's been rare to see an eagle there.
But not this year.
"I've been here for 15 years, and I've never seen anything like this," she said.
It started in the fall, she said, when a large number of wild fowl showed up on the lake, situated about a mile and a half north of the Merrimack River. Mallards, mergansers, snow geese and hundreds of coots — a smallish, black, aquatic bird — stopped and stayed in the open waters.
Then came the eagles, apparently attracted by the large number of prey.
Wolfe said it's been a photography bonanza for residents, who have caught photos and videos of eagles swooping, diving, and capturing prey. Up to three eagles have been sighted at one time on the lake.
One of the most dramatic incidents Wolfe witnessed was a life-and-death struggle between a single, isolated coot and an eagle that was intent on catching it. As Thanksgiving weekend guests watched from the Wolfes' home, the eagle attempted several different techniques to surprise and capture the wily coot. It managed to dive out of danger's path each time, and the eagle seemed not to want to get wet.
"In the end, the eagle was exhausted, it just gave up," she said.
Eagles have become more common in this region, in part due to the increase in nests. There are four documented eagle nests in the region — one in West Newbury and three in Haverhill. On Friday, a new nest was reported, on the Powow River in Amesbury. That nest is being investigated and will be documented by state wildlife officials, who place baffles around the lower parts of the tree to prevent predators from climbing up to the nests.
Local wildlife experts say sightings of bald eagles should rise along the Merrimack River as temperatures get colder in the north, where most eagles are right now. Colder temperatures will freeze up rivers and force eagles to migrate south find prey in open water. The Merrimack — a fast-running river with substantial tidal activity — tends to have large patches of open water from the Chain Bridge seaward to Plum Island. Eagles come to this area to perch in trees and hunt for fish.
But on Lake Attitash, it appears that the excitement is winding down. The lake is at least partly frozen, and bird activity has diminished.
"Now we're really unhappy to see the lake is frozen," said Wolfe. "It's so quiet."