On January 7, I accompanied David Fuller, MassWildlife District Wildlife Biologist, on a helicopter survey during the annual midwinter bald eagle survey. My role was to scan the skies and the trees for eagles along 70 miles of the Connecticut River and 150 miles of shoreline of the Quabbin Reservoir and its islands. As a birder, this assignment was a thrill!
Late in the day I learned a record breaking statewide total of a 102 birds were counted across the state that day—up from the record 81 birds counted in 2009. Since then, some more reports have trickled in bringing the total to 107 birds! Eagles are flying high in Massachusetts!
Leo Boucher has piloted the eagle chopper survey in the past, and Dave has been in the front seat since 2003. We departed from Orange Municipal Airport and headed for the Connecticut River, starting at the Vermont border and headed south down the middle of the river. The sky was a leaden gray, with the sun weakly poking through the overcast clouds. At times, a squall of flurries whirled around us.
We were 400-500 feet above the ground, flying at speeds averaging 45 mph. On the Connecticut River, Dave (who is pictured here in the helicopter) scanned the shoreline and trees on the left, while I sat behind Leo scanning the western shore on the right. Each time we spotted an eagle, Dave marked the number of birds and their approximate age on his map, while I recorded more detailed information. The adult eagles were fairly easy to see—their white heads and massive bodies stood out on the bare trees, even in the green boughs of white pines. Juveniles were more of a challenge with mottled, dark brown bodies blending into the landscape, but, since they were big and they tended to fly as we approached, we were confident we spotted most (if not all) of the birds on the river. Sometimes a red-tailed hawk with its white belly perched in the top of a tree or a long limb caught my eye, but the small size kept me scanning for larger birds.
Sometimes we circled eagle nests to check for recent activity. At this time of year, adult eagle pairs add sticks to their massive nests and defend their territory from other eagles. Dave could tell when new sticks were in place—for him, this was like noticing a neighbor’s new mailbox or new shutters on the house! We also spotted a new nest on one of the Quabbin's islands. Dave will check that new location later in the season for nesting activity.
We observed flocks of ducks and geese on the river as well as ice fishermen in icy coves and duck hunters set up on shore or boating upstream. Finally, we flew along the long, forested shorelines of the Quabbin Reservoir. Dave noted reservoir levels were lower than in past years—a reflection of last year’s dry summer and fall. There was less waterfowl activity on the Quabbin—many areas were iced over. Our best wildlife sighting (other than the eagles) was a pair of coyotes on the ice. They ran for the shoreline keeping their heads turned towards us as we approached.
Our flight, sponsored by National Grid – a long time partner in the state eagle restoration project, ended on a high note. Less than two minutes from the airport, Leo spotted an adult eagle soaring over the nearby Hunt Farm. After Dave and I disembarked, we compared information and bird numbers then called the Westborough office to add to the day's statewide count. It was a record-breaking day on the Connecticut River—18 birds were spotted, 15 adults and three juveniles. Usually around 10 birds are counted. At Quabbin we counted 33 birds – 26 adults and seven immature birds.
The photos are of Dave and the Connecticut River and Mt. Sugarloaf this year's survey. The photo of the eagle perched in the tree is from the 2009 survey.