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Backyard Birder

Pizza with the eagles

Following tradition, on Saturday Carl and I paddled out to visit Nubanusit Lake’s bald eagles. The tradition includes pizza and beer as we drift offshore from the large white pine nest tree at lake edge.

“Eagle,” said Carl, spotting a distant upright shape on a branch near another dark roundish shape: A young eagle perched yards from its nest.

After a while, we saw movement in the nest: a second youngster. Very good news. We agreed it was hard to imagine such a small nest hosting such large birds, including parents delivering meals.

Of all the birds, eagles have one of the largest nests. Not this one, however.

I spotted one then another adult eagle perched high in different shoreline white pines 50 yards away, vigilant. One adult was in full sunlight, its head the whitest white and feet intensely yellow.

We had dinner with a family of eagles.

I’ve written about the Nubanusit eagles before, how a Harris Center teacher/naturalist discovered a large nest in that same white pine back in 1998. It was celebrated as the second active bald eagle nest known in the state at that time. The first breeding pair began nesting way north on Lake Umbagog a decade before.

After the disastrous DDT spraying years, eagles disappeared from the state for 40 years. Population recovery has been slow but steady thanks to the work of several partners.

Chris Martin from New Hampshire Audubon — one of the partners — reported that 2012 was a record-smashing year for New Hampshire bald eagles with 20 nests successfully fledging 33 young eagles. Chris and volunteers monitor 35 territorial pairs in the state and keep tabs on additional nests just across the Maine and Vermont borders.

As was the case with the Nubanusit eagles, territorial pairs aren’t always successful in fledging young. Success at Nubanusit didn’t start until 2004.

I’m not familiar with Nubanusit Lake beyond our eagle paddles, but from the Hancock boat landing on King’s Highway, the view out along the lake seems unending.

Indeed, until the mid- to late 1800s Nubanusit Lake was known as “Long Pond” before reverting to its Abenaki name.

From quick research, I also learned that the original waterway was a couple ponds connected by a stream back before waterpower became the driver of the industrial revolution.

Focus began to shift from farming and hill towns — where the growing season was longer — to previously undesirable rocky river lowlands. Dams were built and mill towns including Harrisville sprang up.

By deed in 1870, Cheshire Mills in Harrisville was granted the water rights to dam Long Pond, raising the water level about 12 feet.

Nubanusit Lake as we know it today, a long stretch 715 acres in size and some three miles in length, was created as a reservoir to power downstream mills. Howard Mansfield, in his book “Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart,” tells the story in a chapter titled, “A Family History of Water.”

Released water from Long Pond/Nubanusit Lake powered eight mills that employed more than 900 workers. The migration from failing hill farms to factory was a quick one.

To help supply water in periods of summer drought, Spoonwood Pond was dammed as a back-up reservoir upstream from Nubanusit Lake.

When drifting offshore from the eagle nest, we can see the Spoonwood dam. The shoreline of the 170-acre pond is entirely conserved, and the very short portage up and over the dam to wonderfully wild Spoonwood Pond is well worth the effort.

Howard Mansfield makes the point that Nubanusit Lake as industrial reservoir is a perspective of another era, back when water was king — the oil or coal of another time. He writes, “But our era values waterfront, not waterpower.”

Waterfront and boating and valued shoreland property.

That shifted perspective can create conflict when water levels have to be drawn down to avoid downstream flooding when storms bring heavy rains.

Hurricane season presents special challenges. It also coincides with Labor Day and our hopes for one last trip to the lake. Drawdown water levels present challenges to swimming and boating.

The woolen mills are long gone but the responsibility for managing water levels is a very real and ever-present challenge.

We didn’t do our eagle pizza paddle last year as nesting failed. The longtime nesting female — fledging 19 youngsters including four years of rare triplets — died in October 2011. As Chris Martin suggested in his email conveying the sad news, there would soon be a new female.

Dave Robinson reported a female perched with the male within a month. Dave and his wife, Nellie, have a distant view of the nest and have reported eagle nesting activity to Chris Martin and Audubon since 1998.

Chris says the new female is banded, and he recently learned she fledged five years ago from a nest on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts — in sight of the Mass Pike, he added. The considerable Fourth of July boat traffic on Nubanusit Lake perhaps did not disturb her as she and the longtime Nubanusit male tended their two chicks.

The first young eagle took flight two days after our visit. We’d seen one of the two jumping around and flapping wings on the nest and nearby branches. Before fledging there’s lots of flight practice to develop muscle and coordination. Landing skills are particularly important but difficult to practice.

Dave Robinson’s report said the young eagle’s flight was “the usual wobbly way” but without any apparent crash landings.

I recommend a visit with the eagles. The nest tree is on the northerly shore not far from the Spoonwood dam. Paddle beyond the Nelson-Hancock townline “N-H” white sign on the shoreline. Bright orange “Nesting Eagle” signs also are visible in the nest area.

A respectful distance, of course, is important to maintain.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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