Bald Eagles Are Returning to the Cape and Islands

Feb 3, 2016

For my first edition of the Bird Report that's exclusively about birds, I figured I needed a slam dunk. A topic no one could argue with. So that's why I've gone with that species that defines “majestic”: the Bald Eagle.


Boasting a seven-foot wingspan, weighing in at up to 15 pounds, with deadly strong feet tipped with switchblade talons, and hobbies that include fishing, patriotism, and effortless soaring over purple mountain's majesty, I knew I couldn't go wrong.

Ok, so they steal food from other birds, and they have a seriously wimpy call for a massive bird of prey. As is true with human celebrities, we're willing to overlook a lot of personality flaws when a bird is really good looking...

When you think of birds that might be associated with Cape Cod, you probably don't think of the Bald Eagle. And with good reason – for at least 100 years, they were a genuine rarity in these parts. Habitat loss, shooting, and the pesticide DDT combined at various times to cause their near extinction from the eastern US, and they were officially extirpated from Massachusetts in the early 1900s. But Mass Wildlife, with some help from Mass Audubon, reintroduced Bald Eagles to the Quabbin Reservoir in central Mass between 1982 and 1988. Young birds were brought in from Michigan and Canada to be raised at artificial nesting sites, a technique known as hacking.

By 1989 they were breeding on their own, and since then, nesting eagles have spread throughout the state, with at least 51 territorial pairs as of 2015. Locally, Bald Eagles nest on lakes in Plymouth and Lakeville, and will probably nest on the Upper Cape very soon if they aren't already. They start courting and nest building as early as December and will have eggs by March, so if you see a pair of adults hanging out in appropriate habitat, meaning a large pond with some fairly secluded areas of mature forest, there's a good chance they are nesting right now.

Keep in mind that only adults have that classic white head and tail look – young birds take five years to get that adult plumage, and are mostly brown with varying amounts of white mottling. The young birds are often mistaken for Golden Eagles, which are exceedingly rare on the Cape, showing up maybe once every 20 years.

You can see a Bald Eagle just about any month of the year here on the Cape, including in spring and summer when young birds fledged from southern nests as far away as Florida disperse northwards. But winter is the best time to see them, as northern birds are pushed south by increasing ice cover and mix with local birds.

Look for them especially at ponds that hold one of their favorite winter foods – American Coots - which essentially function as Bald Eagle popcorn. In recent weeks there have been reports of two eagles each on Martha's Vineyard, at Mashpee-Wakeby Pond, and in Chatham, and of single birds in Eastham, Brewster, Wellfleet, Orleans, Barnstable, Sandwich, and Falmouth.  Eagles are back, so keep your eye out, and you too may see one of the greatest success stories of modern conservation circling your local lake.