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Be on the lookout for ducks and eagles

Bald eagle
Bald eagle

This past weekend I was tasked with leading a duck and eagle safari on behalf of the remarkable Harwich Conservation Trust. With a full roster of 15 hopeful birdwatchers, my plan was to check various spots around the big pond complex in Harwich and Brewster, a great area to see winter ducks and the eagles that eat them. But I was nervous – eagles had been tough to come by in Harwich this winter, and I started to get flop sweat thinking none would show. There’s only so much time people can spend differentiating Greater and Lesser Scaup before they start asking where the eagles are. But just ten minutes into the program, in the teeth of a frigid wind off the whitecapped water of Long Pond, the day’s savior glided low over the beach - a gorgeous adult Bald Eagle.

Based on the scouting I had been doing, this was an improbable event. On other visits I’d had to work hard to maybe find a distant perched eagle, if any at all. Other winters, especially when it’s cold enough for the pond to freeze, it can be easy to find the eagles on Long Pond – they often just stand on the ice near the concentrated ducks, like diners choosing their lobster from a restaurant aquarium. This winter has been too mild for freezes – even the coldest snaps have produced no lasting ice. This means the ducks are spread across many acres of pond surface and the eagles are often hidden in distant trees.

You may know that eagles nest on Cape Cod now, with known nests on both the mid and Outer Cape. I suspect there are others we don’t know about. I checked the Outer Cape nest back on January 30th and found they were already incubating eggs – these big birds start early, which means having to sit on those eggs through whatever snowstorms late winter brings. If you find an adult eagle this time of year and have time to watch it, do so. You may eventually see some evidence of a nest.

The ducks are not too shabby right now and much easier to find. Long Pond held great rafts of both Greater and Lesser Scaup, many hundreds in all, feeding on freshwater mussels plucked from the bottom. The saltwater shellfish get all the notoriety, but these obscure freshwater shellfish have names, too, like Eastern Floater and Eastern Elliptio, and are important food for several species of wintering duck. The pond also held as many as six Common Loons, a moderately out of place Red-throated Loon, and big flotillas of Common Mergansers hunting the herring, plus scattered Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, and other waterfowl. An adjacent small satellite pond held two Wood Ducks on a recent visit, a shimmering and showy male and his relatively drab mate – a rare find for February.


I’m leading another of these walks on Saturday, but it’s full. If you have a hankering to learn more about pond ducks, Mass Audubon has a program scheduled Friday morning at duck-rich Herring Pond in Eastham, where eagles have also been regular this winter, ably led by one of my bird-smart colleagues. I may crash that duck party myself on my way to the office. Either way, I hope you all get out there for some form of duck fancying, and that an improbable eagle finds you, as well.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.