Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Royalty of the Lakes

Every bird of prey looks over its shoulder before it goes in for the kill, even a hawk.  Even they know to watch their backs – every single one but an eagle.  It’s fearless.  Michele Horst,  Wake Me Up 

  February’s nor’easters have already occurred and the Bald Eagles are back in command at the Mystic Lakes.  We can pretty much be certain of these two things every winter.  Though we’d all rather see more Eagles and less snow.  It’s extraordinary that year after year the Eagles find their way back to the Lakes and to ‘The Tree’ in front of the Medford Boat Club that has become their command post.  They somehow find this needle-in-a-haystack speck of water year after year. When the water freezes up north where they live, they ‘know’ that there will be open water at the Mystic Lakes in Medford, Arlington and Winchester. How do they know this?  There is conjecture and theory about how they know this and how they find their way to the Lakes every year.  But for those of us with our cameras, scopes and binoculars at the ready, we prefer the mystery of this.  As Mark Twain wrote in A TRAMP ABROAD, “We have lost as much as we have gained by prying into that matter.”  So we leave it alone.  That’s the wheelhouse of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We just want to watch and photograph these majestic birds as they fly around and over us, winter after winter, at our own Mystic Lakes. They truly are the Royalty of the Lakes.
Photo by Mark Resendes.
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Photo by Glen Campbell.
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Photo by Glen Campbell
Bald Eagle with band.  Photo by Craig Gibson.
Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle pair on “The Tree’ as it snows.  Photo by Jim Renault.
  Every year around this time Medford’s Birds of Prey guru, Paul Roberts, updates us on the State of the Eagles.  Paul chronicles these birds and comments on them day after day for Arlington Birds.  Because of Paul we are slowly learning the nuances of ‘Eagleology’ –  juveniles, immatures, sub adults, basic 1st,  2nd, 3rd and 4th year birds and the other information that adds to our appreciation of this species.  We have learned Eagle-speak from Paul.  He is our professor of ‘Bald Eagles 101.’   This link will help in identifying the Eagles at their various stages of development upon which Paul will comment  To complete the story we have photos of the Mystic Lakes Bald Eagles from several of the dedicated photographers that are out there day after day capturing their antics: Jim Renault, Craig Gibson, Glen Campbell, Judd Nathan, Brian Rusnica, Mark Resendes and David Morris.
  Paul is just back from a birding trip to Texas, where, among other delights, he watched an Aplomado Falcon one day for several hours.  But that’s for another time.   For now Paul is going to turn his laser-like focus to our Mystic Lakes Bald Eagles, the symbol of our country.
Photo by David Morris                                                     
Photo by David Morris.
                                                   Paul Roberts
For the second half of the twentieth century, seeing a Bald Eagle anywhere in Massachusetts was a rare event. Eagles were seen primarily in winter because breeding populations had been extirpated from much of the eastern U.S. What few birds might be seen were at Quabbin, and beginning in the 80s and 90s on the Merrimack River, and were likely from Canada. These birds would move south in stages in November and December as northern lakes and streams froze over, cutting off their access to fish and waterfowl. Eventually in late December or early January some would reach Massachusetts. The best chance to see eagles in eastern Massachusetts was in March when lakes and ponds would start to thaw out, releasing fish killed in the freeze-up. Thawing lakes’ fish kills attracted flocks of gulls and the few eagles migrating north, looking for a free meal.
The banning of DDT in 1972 enabled eagle populations to slowly recover. Reintroduction programs successfully introduced healthy young who were released or “hacked” into good breeding territory. A Bald Eagle requires at least 4-5 years to reach adult plumage with a full white head and tail, and they generally do not begin breeding until they are 4-7 years old, so it took time for numbers to begin to rebound. Many young adult eagles “play house” for several years so may not successfully raise young until they are around 7 years old.
Photo by Craig Gibson.
Photo by Craig Gibson.
In the immediate Medford area beginning around 2000 our first real opportunities to see eagles were from late December into late February and early March. Northern eagles would occasionally visit the Mystic Lakes and River, portions of which tend to remain open throughout most winters because of the dams on both ends of the river. We saw easily identifiable adults but also unfamiliar immature eagles, difficult to identify because they lack bright white heads and tails. Size and shape became important to identification, All Bald Eagles have a roughly 6-foot wingspan, with the head and large beak in front of the wing about as long as the tail behind the wing. That shape is important because most immature eagles are primarily blackish-looking birds with dirty white “armpits” and variable amounts of dirty white on their bellies, backs and crowns. These winter visitors moved around Greater Boston, looking for open bodies of water in which to find prey. When temperatures rose above freezing they might fish shallower lakes and ponds as they thawed, including Spy, Spot and Horn Pond, but when we got into the depth of winter and those waters froze over, the eagles would focus on the Mystic Lakes, and the Mystic and Charles Rivers, where dams helped keep portions open.
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Photo by Judd Nathan.
For over a decade, we saw increasing numbers of wintering Bald Eagles of all ages on the Mystic Lakes, reaching an estimated minimum 10-15 different eagles a year. Visitors would often perch majestically in “The Tree” by the Medford Boat Clubhouse, affording the birds commanding views of the lakes and upper river. “The Tree” also gave many people their first good views of a Bald Eagle!
Bald Eagle
Photo by Jim Renault.
About five years ago there was a significant change. Two young wintering adult eagles paired off and nested within ten miles of the lakes. They abandoned their unsuccessful attempts after two years, but they were now a year round presence, occasionally seen patrolling the Mystic Lakes and other ponds. However, unlike many wintering birds, they did not regularly spend considerable time at the lakes. Then other young pairs began attempting nesting in the larger area, so 1-2 adults might be seen any time of year.
Another major trend was also underway. Southern Bald Eagle populations were also recovering, from Florida to Louisiana. Southern young can hatch in December and fledge as early as March! After several months, many southern juveniles, immatures and adults, move north to cooler climes with better fishing opportunities, including Canada. We might see some in Massachusetts in early summer, but are more likely to see them in August and September when many southern eagles, especially adults, begin moving back south to their nesting territories.
Eagle migration counts at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Massachusetts began skyrocketing in 2013, when hawk watchers counted 102 migrants, primarily in September, up from 48 the year before. In 2014 an all-time high of 189 eagles were seen, including a record 39 on September 14! This increase was reflected throughout much of the northeast. At the Mystic Lakes we began seeing small but growing numbers of eagles working the lakes in August to October, a dramatic change from prior years.
There was another subtle shift in the winter of 2016-2017. First, this unusually warm winter did not produce prolonged freeze up of the rivers and lakes immediately north of us in New England, much less the Mystics. Thus, we have not seen the magnitude of winter visitors that we have come to expect over the past fifteen years. (We’ve also seen a precipitous drop in the wintering, fish-eating Great Cormorant!) Second, the behavior of eagles at the lakes has changed. Over the past several years the “local pair” began perching regularly in a spruce tree on the western shore of the lower lake, on private property and difficult to see well. With eagles nesting successfully within 10-15 miles of the lakes the past several years, we have had adults, juveniles and recently older immatures visiting the lakes anytime during the year, becoming much more familiar with it. They often perch in trees on the western shoreline to avoid contact with humans and where they can be difficult to see without careful scanning with binoculars. The white heads of the full adults stand out when they sit high in a tree, but the mottled “black” and dirty white immatures can be very difficult to spot.
Photo by Brian Rusnica.
During the winter of 2016-17, at least ten different individuals, and likely a few more, have been seen. At least four different adults have been observed at one time. Adults can be very difficult to identify individually, except that males are generally noticeably smaller than their mates. We have had at least two subadults (largely white head and tail but with variable dark smudges best seen when perched, and often “salt” speckling the dark body; in flight can be mistaken for full adults.). We have seen at least two white-bellied immatures, who have dark-brown bibs and variable amounts of dirty white mottling on the belly, upper back, and crown; white armpits; and some possible white streaking in the tail. We have had at least two juveniles (dark head, tail, and body with white armpits; limited dirty white streaking). At least three juveniles fledged within ten miles of the lakes this past spring, so we have likely seen them all. (Bald Eagles go through 4-6 different plumages over 4-7 years, which can make labeling and ageing them accurately quite challenging.)
Photo by Craig Gibson.
For more than a decade we have occasionally seen spectacular dramatic courtship flights in February and early March, especially on sunny, cold, windy days. Eagles of any age might “duet,” soaring, gliding, or in powered flight together. Or fly “in tandem” with the lower bird rolling over and raising talons while the upper bird drops talons, or do “roller coaster” flights. Over the past several years, several eagles have been seen copulating in a tree on the lake shore, or breaking off sticks for nests and carrying them off, another courtship ritual often leading to copulation. Such sightings are rare, unforgettable experiences. Locally nesting Red-tailed Hawks are also courting at this time, with “duetting,” dramatic sky dancing, talon dropping, roller-coaster flights, and screeching.
Photo by Brian Rusnica.
Keep your eyes open on the Mystic Lakes, along the Mystic River, or on other bodies of water in our area. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that eagles are nesting in the immediate vicinity of the Mystic Lakes or Horn Pond. If you think you see evidence of this, please contact me privately at or contact Drew Vitz, State Ornithologist, at Andrew.Vitz@MassMail.State.MA.US The objective is to do what is best to ensure the birds nesting success while respecting the rights of property owners.
There is a lot we do not know about eagles. Advanced radiotelemetry is giving us many new insights into eagle behavior.
Photo by John Harrison.
We now have the largest breeding population of Bald Eagles in Massachusetts in our lifetime. Many prime nesting territories are now occupied. New pairs will have to occupy more marginal habitat, including cemeteries, country clubs, and large back yards with tall trees, involving more and closer encounters with humans. If you see an eagle perched, please keep your distance. Do not flush it by attempting to get closer for photographs. Respect the eagle’s need to rest, hunt, and eat undisturbed. Just enjoy seeing this incredible bird in our own back yard.
Photo by Mark Resendes
Photo by John Harrison
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The King and Queen on ‘The Tree.”  Photo by John Harrison.