February 28, 2011

March is Mating Season in Massachusetts

Tired of winter and ready for spring, many people are wondering what to do in March.   For nature lovers, the answer is to plan a trip to Central Massachusetts and a chance to witness the remarkable comeback of this nations national emblem, the Bald Eagle.

The Bald Eagle, with its snow-capped head, piercing yellow eyes and majestic 7 foot wingspan can be found nesting in the Quabbin Reservoir in late February and March.

Photo of a Bald Eagle courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Bald Eagle, once almost extinct, is making a comeback, thanks in no small part to the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife  and the success of the 1982 Massachusetts Bald Eagle Restoration Project.

Starting in 1982, nestlings were moved from Michigan and Canada, raised in specially constructed cages on a remote penisula in the Quabbin, hand fed by eagle puppets (so they would not become attached to humans) and released as young eagles into the "Accidental Wilderness" that the construction of the Quabbin Reservoir created in the center of Massachusetts.

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By the end of the program in 1989,  41 nestlings and been released.  That same year two pairs nested in the wilds of central Massachusetts for the first time since the turn of the century, and the rest as they say, is history.

Eagles were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007.

An eagle count is taken every winter by state officials with a lot of volunteer help and in 2011 the count was an amazing 102 eagles, with 75 adults, 23 juveniles and four of unknown age. The largest concentration of eagles - 33  - was seen at the Quabbin Reservoir, where it all started just 30 years ago.

This makes Central MA a great place to come is you want a chance to the majestic bald eagle and Clamber Hill is a great place to stay, conveniently close to the Quabbin Reservoir.

Clamber Hill in the Wintertime

The mature bald eagle weighs between 8 to 14 lbs,  is 34 to 43 inches in length and has a wingspan of up to 7 feet.  Eagles live for 25 to 30 years and they mate for life.

They build nests that are truly engineering marvels, up to 13 ft high, with diameters of 6 to 8 ft that weigh up to 2000 lbs.  The trees selected for nests tend to be large (needless to say) and generally taller than any other surrounding trees.  The eagles will return to the same nest year after year unless something causes them to move on.

Courtship occurs in mid-to late winter and is a spectacular sight.   The eagles are aerial acrobats performing loops, cartwheels and dives.  And since the eagles fly at speeds of 35 to 45 miles per hour this courtship dance is truly amazing.  Enfield Lookout in the Quabbin Park at the south end of the Reservoir is a good viewing spot in the winter months.

Enfield Lookout, Quabbin Park

Enfield Lookout, Quabbin Park

The female lays one to three eggs some time in March or April.  Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, and after they hatch, both parents share the responsibility for feeding the nestlings.  Young eagles grow rapidly and eat up to 2 lbs of fish per day, so they need their food close by!  When the young eagles are 10 weeks old they will begin to take short "test flights".  The parents continue to provide food and protection until the young eagles are 6 to 8 months old.   It takes a full 4 to 5 years for eagles to reach full maturity.  And then they usually find their own territory within a 200 mile range of where they were hatched.

As their main source of food is fish, they tend to nest along large bodies of water, either lakes or rivers.  In addition to nesting in the Quabbin Reservoir, there are now bald eagles nesting at Barton's Cove along the Millers River.  In fact, First Light Power Resources, has installed a web cam over one of the nests but unfortunately it was not working well in 2010.  Hopefully it will be back on line for this nesting season.  The website does show amazing still photos from the 2008 nesting season.

So if you're ready for a mid-winter adventure and a chance to see largest, most majestic raptor in North America, plan a trip to the Quabbin Resevoir, the "Accidental Wilderness" of Massachusetts.

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