Backyard Naturalist: Eagles in winter

  • An adult female eagle, from the pair that nests at Nubanusit Lake, perched on a branch this summer. Photo by Sean O’Mara

  • A bald eagle is seen with its latest catch. Photo by Mark Watson

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/27/2021 4:25:51 PM

Whenever I pass by one of our region’s many lakes or ponds, I scan the water for wildlife. In summer, depending on the time of day, it’s not uncommon to spy a heron hunting in the shallows or a beaver patrolling the pond edge. In spring and fall, boisterous rafts of mergansers can often be seen splashing and diving for fish.

In winter, I’m more likely to see humans than any other wildlife out on the ice – but every once in a while, something special happens. A couple of years ago, for instance, a dark blob standing next to a patch of open water on Child’s Bog in Harrisville sharpened, through the lens of my binoculars, into a mature bald eagle.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey, where my primary exposure to wildlife was through nature documentaries on TV. To this day, certain species – moose, bobcats, eagles – still leave me a little star-struck, the New Hampshire equivalent of stumbling across a pride of lions stalking antelope on the savannah.

Forty years ago, the sight of a bald eagle hunting on the ice in Harrisville would have thrilled more than just this Jersey girl. In the years following World War II, widespread use of the pesticide DDT decimated populations of bald eagles, osprey, and other fish-eating birds. For nearly three decades, the toxin washed into waterways, made its way up the food chain, and built up in the tissues of female eagles, where it resulted in egg shells too weak to withstand incubation.

From 1950 to 1987, no eagles nested in New Hampshire. Between 1988 and 1997, there was but one nesting pair in the entire state, on Umbagog Lake near the Maine border. When New Hampshire conducted its first mid-winter eagle survey in January 1981, biologists found just four immature eagles – migrants, presumably, from elsewhere in the Northeast.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, and in 1973 bald eagles became one of the very first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. After decades of careful management, this iconic species has made a strong recovery in the Granite State and elsewhere, living proof that – with political will, funding, and the dedication of biologists and volunteers – wildlife can be brought back from the brink of extinction.

Bald eagles were removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2007, and from the New Hampshire list a decade later.

In January 2020, New Hampshire’s mid-winter eagle survey reached a milestone: for the first time in four decades of counting, more than 100 eagles were observed on a single count day. This past summer, 76 territorial pairs of bald eagles set up shop in the Granite State; 51 of them successfully fledged a total of 76 young. Other numbers are hopeful, too: New Hampshire’s bald eagle population is now doubling every five to seven years, and the six highest mid-winter eagle count totals have all occurred in the last six years.

Now that bald eagles are firmly re-established throughout the Granite State, NH Audubon and New Hampshire Fish and Game are discontinuing the state’s participation in the mid-winter eagle survey in order to put their limited resources toward species in greater need of assistance.

However, volunteers are still encouraged to submit their winter eagle sightings to eBird or NH Audubon for inclusion in the state’s long-term eagle monitoring database. According to Chris Martin, senior raptor biologist for NH Audubon, the most useful wintertime observations are those of two adult bald eagles together or of eagles carrying sticks in their talons, both of which can indicate the establishment of nesting territories. (Bald eagles don’t achieve their distinctive pure white heads and tails until around five years of age, which is helpful for distinguishing adults from younger birds; the heads and tails of immature eagles vary in color from dark brown to mottled gray and white.)

Where should you look if you want to boost your chances of seeing a bald eagle in the cold months? “Eagles in winter are all about food,” says Martin. Although bald eagles eat fish, they’re also skilled scavengers, and carrion comprises a large portion of their winter diets. They often gather in groups to take advantage of winter food resources, with younger eagles watching more experienced birds for clues on where to find reliable meals. Farms that dispose of dead livestock regularly attract winter eagles, as do large swaths of open water and lakes with significant ice fishing activity. As Martin says, “any place that results in a scattering of fish parts and baloney sandwiches on the ice is a good place to see eagles.”

Lakes with eagle nests are also a great place to search for birds, even in winter, as New Hampshire’s adult eagles typically stay on their breeding territory all year long. By mid-January, some pairs are already starting to spruce up their stick nests for the breeding season, and egg incubation can begin as early as February 20. In the Monadnock Region, bald eagles now nest at Surry Reservoir, Spofford Lake, Granite Lake, Powdermill Pond, Nubanusit Lake, and near Gilmore Pond in Jaffrey. There are also a number of pairs nesting along the Connecticut River.

For nearly half a century, you were far more likely to see bald eagles on TV than in real life. Now, thanks to years of dedicated conservation efforts, they are once again part of the lives of our lakes and rivers. If you find yourself in need of a little hope this winter – and who doesn’t? – grab your binoculars and head out in search of these comeback kings and queens. It’s okay to be a little star-struck when you find them.

Brett Amy Thelen is Science Director at the Harris Center for Conservation Education.

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