As I sit down to write this week’s bird report on the 4th of July, I feel compelled to address our most patriotic of birds – the Bald Eagle. “Isn’t that a little 'on the nose,' bird guy?” you are probably saying. Yes, yes it is. But it is not without relevance to Cape Cod, where our national symbol is back after many decades of absence.
Folks are still surprised to learn that Bald Eagles are increasingly common year-round residents here on the Cape. And not just because any kind of year-round resident seems to be a rare thing on Cape Cod. I think people still associate eagles with wilderness, and can envision them only in sprucey coves in Maine or Alaska. But they are here right now, and you could encounter this bird pictured next to the word “majestic” in the dictionary on your next hike or kayak trip in Brewster or Sandwich.
Before the modern reintroduction programs, the last nesting Bald Eagle in Massachusetts was in Sandwich at the turn of the 20th century. You may know that the pesticide DDT caused eagle populations to plummet mid-century, but the banning of the pesticide coupled with the reintroduction programs have brought eagle populations back to the point where they no longer require the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Here in Massachusetts, state wildlife officials and Mass Audubon teamed up in the 80s to relocate eaglets from Michigan and Canada to the Quabbin Reservoir, and the population has grown ever since.
Currently the closest known nesting site to the Cape is in Plymouth, with multiple others around the big reservoirs of Lakeville. But for two years now, a pair of Bald Eagles has occupied an Osprey nest in Brewster in late winter, only to abandon it in the spring. This is as close as we’ve gotten to a first modern record of Bald Eagles nesting on the Cape. We’re not sure if there is a more hidden nesting site somewhere in the Nickerson State Park or Punkhorn woodlands. Recent sightings of adults and immature birds together in Harwich have been suggestive but not a smoking gun. A pair of adults also hangs around Mashpee-Wakeby Pond in the Mashpee/Sandwich area. With lots of big old white pines on those big tracts of forest, they could definitely be hiding a nest somewhere in there.
While the sightings of adults and the hints of possible nesting are exciting, you can also see immature birds any time of year, some of which may have fledged from nests as far away as Florida before dispersing northwards. Eagles from one to four years old are mostly brown, don’t have nests of their own, and can be seen anywhere on the Cape. I actually had an immature eagle soaring high over my East Harwich yard last week while I was painting my house. It was being harassed by a Cooper’s Hawk, which looked like a sparrow in comparison.
So if you keep your eyes peeled and your mind prepared, you might be able to find yourself a Bald Eagle this summer. In fact, isn’t that one soaring majestically behind those exploding fireworks right now? No – sorry – that’s one of those planes dragging a beer ad behind it.