Normally, this is when we would be settling in for the coldest, darkest depths of winter, and going into our post-holiday cocoons. January and February are the months of snowstorms and of binge-watching Netflix. But having just survived the equivalent of five winters worth of cold over two weeks, temps in the 30s and 40s now feel like shorts weather, and you may be looking to get outside.
Luckily, there is some good birding to be had right now in the form of waterfowl, and, maybe more compellingly, the charismatic megafauna known as the Bald Eagle.
This has been a banner year for Bald Eagles on Cape Cod, with many more sightings than normal from end to end. Even the usually eagle-free Vineyard has had at least two in recent weeks. This is most likely thanks to the deep freeze of a few weeks ago. As water to our north froze completely, both eagles and ducks headed to the coast, where fresh water is less likely to be totally frozen, and even if it does, many salt water bays stay open.
Ice is no problem for an eagle - they know how to use it to their advantage. For one thing, it gives them a place to stand close to open water patches and the food sources they provide. Without ice, they have to perch way over at the edge of a lake or river, but when things freeze, they can saunter around as they please looking for fish and fowl for their dining pleasure. Eagles have been reported standing around on the ice of Cape Cod Bay, various harbors, and innumerable ponds this winter. Last week I watched an adult standing on the ice of Long Pond in Harwich and keeping an eye on the mass of ducks in the nearby open water.
These reduced areas of open water tend to concentrate what waterfowl that remain. Eagles benefit because they can more easily pick off ducks from these open water patches, especially since the ducks have a harder time taking off from small patches and are often weakened to begin with from having less access to food. And whatever fish are drawn to the open water are easy pickings for eagles and their, um, eagle-eyes… I’ve seen footage of eagles actually jumping on thin ice to break it, then snagging a fish below.
As you’ve no doubt heard, Bald Eagles have a reputation for being cowardly scavengers and thieves, and an icy winter is a good time to be both. Deer often don’t survive the hard times, and eagles are happy to join coyotes, crows, and ravens at deer carcasses, something that was a familiar site at the Quabbin reservoir during my time in western Mass.
More locally, there are several places that have been reliable for seeing eagles this winter. Long Pond and Hinckley’s Pond in Harwich have had a few, and so has the West Harwich Conservation Area. Mashpee/Wakeby Pond is reliable year round, and may in fact have a breeding pair. Tiny Nye Pond in Sandwich hosted 5 Bald Eagles one day recently – I saw a photo showing three adults together. But as ice breaks up, they could be anywhere, so be ready.
If you want to learn more about the history and current status of Bald Eagles in Massachusetts, check out Jason Zimmer’s talk at Cape Cod Beer on the night of January 24th, part of the Wildlife on Tap lecture series. I’ve been to this lecture series as both a speaker and an audience member, and I can guarantee it’s going to be a beery good time….maybe I’ll even see you there.