2018-03-01 / Nature

The Eagles Have Landed

By Charles Avenengo


Members of Salve Regina University’s Circle of Scholars view a bald eagle during an Eagle Cruise on the lower Connecticut River last Friday. During the voyage, 17 eagles were sighted. Members of Salve Regina University’s Circle of Scholars view a bald eagle during an Eagle Cruise on the lower Connecticut River last Friday. During the voyage, 17 eagles were sighted. Over the past year, bald eagles have been sighted in Rhode Island in historical numbers with more than 100 distinct observations recorded in the Ocean State.

During the same period, there have been at least 19 sightings on Aquidneck Island. The most reliable spot has been at the St. Mary’s/Sisson’s Pond complex in Portsmouth, where two eagles have been prowling for weeks. Elsewhere in Rhode Island, eagles are being observed along the Seekonk River in Providence, where up to three birds have been seen with some regularity.

A quarter century ago, these sightings wouldn’t have been possible.

Historically, although there were no nesting records, bald eagles were fairly common winter visitors to Rhode Island. But they had disappeared from the state by the 1960s. During the following three decades, sightings were rare during the annual Christmas bird-count surveys. Nationally, fewer than 500 eagles’ nests were known to exist in 1963 in the entire Lower 48 states. Bald eagles were listed as Federally Endangered in 1967.


An immature Bald Eagle perches at Green Bridge in Newport. 
(Photo by Bob Weaver) An immature Bald Eagle perches at Green Bridge in Newport. (Photo by Bob Weaver) The reasons for their decline have been well documented. Persecution, loss of habitat and, especially, the use of the chemical DDT were seen as reasons for the precipitous drop. With the banning of DDT in 1972 and a concentrated national effort by biologists to introduce eagles to their former haunts, the heralded national icon began a comeback.

Although the eagles’ recovery was slower than that of its smaller cousin, the osprey, also affected by DDT, the national symbol began to appear with some regularity in Rhode Island by the early 1990s, although it became the final state for the raptor to actually nest in when a nest was constructed at the Scituate Reservoir in 2003.

In New England, eagle numbers have soared. In 2017, Massachusetts authorities documented 68 nests, while more than 600 nests have been recorded in Maine. Nationally, the recovery efforts have been so successful that bald eagles were removed from the endangered list in 2007.

With the eagle’s return, a nearby cottage industry to view the raptors has emerged, similar to that seen with whale and seal watches. On Feb. 23, 25 members of Salve Regina University’s Circle of Scholars traveled to central Connecticut to view them. Dodging a rainstorm and braving frigid temperatures, they boarded “RiverQuest” in Essex and voyaged along the lower Connecticut River. In all, the two-hour journey yielded 17 bald eagles.

“It was truly a unique life experience to see such a symbolic and rare bird in such large numbers in a natural setting,” Newport’s David Cahoon said.

River cruises to view wintering eagles on the Connecticut River have been conducted since the early 1990s by no less than four waterborne outfitters. During this period, thousands of passengers have boarded these vessels to see the eagles. Thousands more have viewed the eagles and their nests from vantage spots along the river.

In addition to the boat trips, the annual Merrimack Eagle Festival was recently conducted by the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Newburyport, allowing more people to observe the birds of prey.

The golden eagle is also present in North America. While widespread in the west and other areas of the world, the golden eagle has barely established a toehold in New England. Although a few neophytes casually report golden eagle sightings, a number of these reports are considered suspect.

At Lookout Point, which is a highly organized hawk-watch site in New Haven, Connecticut that has been in operation for nearly 50 years, golden eagle sightings are rare. In the past decade, less than 50 golden eagles have been tallied. Last year, none were reported.

In eastern North America, the breeding range of golden eagles is centered in northern Quebec, with the wintering range in the Mid-Atlantic states. Most migration of golden eagles between the two areas occurs west of Rhode Island.

Now is the time to see bald eagles. But don’t procrastinate, for as spring approaches and the ice melts further north, most of southern New England’s wintering population will depart.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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