Bald Eagles Nest Locally
Deep in one of those Plymouth county towns checkered with cranberry bogs, there’s a nest that looks like any of the hundreds of Osprey nests in the region. It sits on a platform erected by Eversource to get it off the adjacent high voltage lines, and overlooks a pond. It’s no bigger or smaller than other Osprey nests, but the occupants are not Ospreys – they are Bald Eagles, and I was lucky enough to be present for the banding of their babies by wildlife officials earlier this week.
Few birds are as recognizable or charismatic as the Bald Eagle, our national symbol. Once common, the persistent pesticide DDT, habitat loss, and hunting drove them to local extinction in many parts of the continent by the 50’s and 60s. Here in Massachusetts, they were already gone by then – the last nest in the state was at Snake Pond in Sandwich in 1905. In 1982, with DDT banned, the state and Mass Audubon teamed up to bring them back, and began relocating chicks from Michigan and Canada to the Quabbin Reservoir. They reared them in artificial nests, feeding them with puppets and everything. By 1989, these locally reared chicks were breeding, and the population has been going up ever since - there are likely well over 8o Bald Eagle nests currently in Massachusetts.
It took an Eversource bucket truck to get Mass Wildlife staff up to the nest, where they carefully placed the chicks in bags to keep them calm, then brought them down for processing. Putting a leg band on an eagle is very different from putting one on a songbird – the bands are a beefier metal and need to be riveted shut to keep them from prying them off. One leg gets a standard federal government issue band that serves as their social security number, the other gets a colored band that I’d call a coppery orange, indicating is was banded in Massachusetts. This state band has a theoretically “field readable” code, best read through a telescope or telephoto lens, allowing average folks to identify and report this bird without recapturing it. One chick had the code 75B – keep an eye out for him here on the Cape next winter.
These baby eagles being banded were fully feathered in their dark brown juvenile plumage, but still sprinkled with leftover hatchling down. One chick weighed in at 7 pounds, pretty hefty for a baby bird, and had a full crop, indicating it ate pretty recently. According to Jason Zimmer of Mass Wildlife’s southeast district, the prey remains they typically find around nests are fish like brown bullhead, pickerel, and bass, and occasional waterfowl – most of the winter ducks the adults like to eat are gone by the time the chicks hatch, so they have to focus on fish, some of which is stolen from the local Osprey.
Speaking of Osprey, it’s likely this eagle nest was an Osprey nest first. Typically, when eagles take over an Osprey nest in winter, the Osprey somehow take it back from the much larger eagles when they return in March or April – this happened in Brewster several years back, and on Martha’s Vineyard last year. But not this time – the squatters apparently won the turf war.
We should look for eagles to be nesting more and more on the Cape, where we still only have one definite nest that I’m aware of that has produced chicks, located somewhere in the vastness of Barnstable. Islands or remote peninsulas in big lakes are the most likely places to find a new eagle nest, but they may successfully steal an Osprey nest here and there, so look sharp.
As I did with last year’s secret eagle nest in Barnstable, I’m going to give you a fighting chance to locate this nest I’ve been talking about. So get ready – the nest is.…near a cranberry bog in southeastern Massachusetts. Good luck!