This Way to the Eaglets!
Scituate Reservoir, Route 116, North Scituate, Scituate
by Mike Tucker
The majestic beauty of the Bald Eagle has enamored observers for centuries. In fact, it was over 200 years ago, on June 20, 1782, that the United States declared the Bald Eagle our national emblem, the species being unique to North America. Despite its official status, this creature was brought to the brink of extinction by habitat destruction and pesticide use. It has since rebounded to a healthy population and here in Rhode Island we are fortunate to have witnessed this comeback with increasing reports of migratory eagles and our very own nesting pair.
When the colonists first arrived, it is believed the Bald Eagle population exceeded 250,000 in North America. With the expanding colonial population, their habitat eventually became encroached upon. In addition to fewer nesting locations, the eagles became subject to bounties, as colonists believed they were a direct threat to livestock as well as the food they hunted and fished for. In the early 1800s it was common for a dead eagle to be worth twenty cents, a sizable sum for that era. They were also hunted for sport and specimens were often sold to museums.
Public outcry lead to the National Emblem Law in 1940, which forbade the killing of Bald Eagles below the fortieth parallel... but their plight was not over. As late as 1953, bounties were still being offered on Bald Eagles in Alaska. Shrinking habitat continued to be a problem as prime habitat for these majestic creatures was also prime real estate for people who desired lakefront homes. In addition, the use of DDT as a pesticide in the '50s and '60s compounded the many problems eagles were already facing. The poison worked its way through the food chain and resulted in very thin and weak eggshells, which easily broke when incubated. This had a devastating effect on many birds of prey. In 1972 the use of DDT was banned but the damage already done was severe. By the following year, the population was fewer than 500 pair in the lower forty-eight states.
On a state-by-state basis, the Bald Eagle was listed as endangered in 1967. It wasn't until the ban of DDT, however, that these birds even stood a chance of surviving. Additional help was needed, and by 1976 the Bald Eagle was officially put on the Federal Endangered Species list. With the help of federal protection and a combination of many efforts, they began a slow comeback. Land conservation and stricter air and water pollution laws, along with education and public awareness, made a positive impact. There are now over 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower forty-eight states and 40,000 to 50,000 pairs in Alaska. The exponential increase led to the federal reclassification of endangered to threatened in July of 1995. In August of 2007, the Bald Eagle was taken off the federal threatened list.
Sightings on the rise
As winter sets in and the lakes and rivers freeze in northern New England, many eagles seek out more temperate locations to find food. Sightings of migratory eagles in Rhode Island have become common and somewhat regular during the winter. The Seekonk River, Narrow River, Barrington River, and many reservoirs and lakes around Rhode Island receive special visits from our national bird. Each year, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island receives many phone calls from elated residents who have just witnessed an eagle perched in a tree or soaring majestically overhead.
A Bald Eagle is an opportunist when it comes to surviving winter. They will seize ducks and gulls resting on the ice as well as scraps from the Central Landfill in Johnston. During the winter, sightings usually do not indicate that they have interest in nesting in the area. Bald Eagles prefer to stay close to the nest all year, but in areas where freeze-over occurs regularly, they routinely migrate. The adults will often drive their own offspring off territory and continue to feed as long as food is available. That is why the bulk of our Rhode Island sightings are immature birds. During hard winters, we see more adult eagles joining the young ones in our area.
The local connection
With the growing population of Bald Eagles, many local biologists figured it was just a matter of time before a pair gave it a try here in Rhode Island. Breeding pairs primarily feed on fish, so a large body of water is a requirement. They usually nest in the tallest tree that provides the best view of their territory. Eagles prefer a lot of good perches in the area, a healthy fish population, and very little human disturbance. There isn't a better place in the state that fits these requirements than the Scituate Reservoir. The main body of water is 3,400 acres in size with about 14,000 acres of forest throughout the protected area. No recreational or commercial use of the land or water is permitted.
Given the ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the Scituate Reservoir would see the state's first recorded Bald Eagle nest. During the winter of 2002-'03 I photographed a pair flying around an island on the reservoir. There was a loose collection of sticks in a tree that indicated some attempt at nest building was made. This is common for a pair's first nest—"playing house" if you will. They won't actually have eggs, but it is considered an active nest when they exhibit this behavior. It is likely the eagles "played house" the previous year. I met up with Scott Massey, who works for Providence Water (the organization that manages the Scituate Reservoir), at a local bagel shop that winter. I told him what I had seen and gave him my card with the request to call if he saw any behavior that could indicate a nesting pair.
The call came on March 12, 2003. Scott had witnessed sticks being carried to a nest and seen a courtship behavior called "bill tapping." After witnessing this behavior myself, I immediately contacted Michael Amaral from United States Fish and Wildlife as well as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to arrange a meeting with Providence Water. I knew Michael from my involvement with the Peregrine Falcon banding program in Providence. As the regional endangered species specialist, he is also involved with nesting Bald Eagles throughout the Northeast. Providence Water, excited to have the first recorded eagles nesting in the state, wanted to be sure not to disturb them with their forestry practices.
In early June of that year I was fortunate enough to join Michael and a small group of volunteers as I canoed everyone out to the island for the banding of the eaglets. Banding can provide useful information in the future; migration destinations, breeding distribution/success, and life span to name a few. The chicks are ready when they are around six weeks old. Using a harness, hardhat, ropes, and other climbing gear, Michael made his way to the top of a very tall white pine tree. The nest was plenty large enough for him to sit inside and begin banding. The adult eagles typically fly well overhead during the entire event—as opposed to the dive-bombing I've witnessed Peregrine Falcons do as their young were banded. Basic information is taken; size, condition, sex (if possible), and other notes. Typically two eggs are laid, but that first year, one dead eaglet was found along with the live one. Since 2003 there have been an additional nine eaglets banded. There were two eaglets that fledged in 2009 but they were not banded due to a scheduling conflict that made Michael Amaral unavailable during the window of opportunity. So as of July 2009, twelve Bald Eagles have fledged from the Scituate site. It is likely that eventually other eagles will show interest around the Scituate Reservoir.
Interesting food remnants from the nest have included turtle shells, duck feathers, and gull feathers. One year, Michael found a ham hock in the nest just after Easter. During the second banding trip, we installed flashing at the base of the tree as well as neighboring trees to discourage fishers or raccoons from predating the nest.
The eagles chose to nest on an island, a safe distance from any human activity. This is important, as Bald Eagles have been known to abandon a disturbed nest—even after chicks have hatched in the early nestling phase. They have a very strong site fidelity that keeps them coming back to the same nest for many years. The nest continues to grow in size each year as the eagles continue to add sticks. They are usually six feet in diameter and can get as deep as seven to ten feet. Older nests, which can weigh over a ton, have been known to topple a tree from the excess weight.
See 'em for yourself
We are fortunate that Rhode Island's eagles chose to build a nest on the reservoir that is in plain view from a major road. The nest can be seen from Route 116, about 1.3 miles south of Route 6 in North Scituate. There are often admirers lined up with spotting scopes and binoculars aimed at the nest. Rhode Island's eagles have had the distinction of being the earliest (or one of the earliest) nesting pairs in the Northeast. As early as January you can see the pair sitting on the nest or adding sticks to it. In 2009 the pair was believed to have eggs by late January and hatching was around March 1. At this stage, you can almost guarantee seeing an adult on the nest. By the time the eaglets are five weeks old, they become more visible in the nest, moving around and getting on the top edge of the nest at times. At ten to twelve weeks you can expect them to take flight; there is something very special about seeing an eagle take its first flight! The young eagles will stay around the nest site for several more weeks, often accompanying the adults on hunting trips. Eventually there is some tough love from the adults and the young eagles are pushed off-territory where they must fend for themselves. As fall sets in, you can expect to see the adults around the reservoir as long as there is open water. It's even possible to see several other eagles that have migrated into the area for the winter.
The success of Rhode Island's Bald Eagles is a shining example of what land and water conservation can accomplish. Preservation efforts from environmental organizations are critical if we are to see these majestic creatures nest in other parts of the state. Large parcels of undisturbed land are needed with continued conservation of habitats. Strict water and air pollution legislation is more important than ever, given the growing population and shrinking open space. Tough enforcement of protective laws as well as the support of the public is crucial to the continued success of this spectacular bird.
The comeback of the Bald Eagle has been remarkable, but it is important to remember what drove them to the edge of extinction and why. Hopefully an eagle sighting will never be considered a rarity again.
Update, March 2, 2015: From an Audubon Society of Rhode Island press release: "The Audubon Society of Rhode Island is reporting that it has been a record year for an American icon in the Ocean State. Bald Eagles have been spotted soaring above the Seekonk River in Providence and perched in trees along the Blackstone River Bikeway in Cumberland. From the shoreline in Newport, to Coventry and locations across South County, there have been numerous eagle sightings reported throughout the state. Until quite recently, these large raptors teetered on the brink of extinction. They had not been seen in Rhode Island until the past decade. And yet, they are now here in numbers."
Hours: Dawn to dusk.
Time required: directly proportional to your level of interest.
Directions: From Route 295 take exit 6 to Route 6 west. Go about 3.7 miles and turn left onto route 116. Go about 1.3 miles (passing through the center of the Village of North Scituate) and look for an opening in the trees giving a view of the Scituate Reservoir on the right, and a shallow pull-off on the left. To observe the eagles, look across from that break in the trees to the large island in the reservoir.
Mike Tucker was a Refuge Manager and Naturalist for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island from 1998 to 2012. His involvement with raptors goes back to around 1984 and has included Barn Owl and American Kestrel nest box projects, the Peregrine Falcon project in Providence, and assisting in the capturing and banding of hawks for research.