By Hazel-Dawn Dumpert
It was the kind of late-autumn day when the sunlight looks like it’s coming from the insides of things rather than shining down upon them. The leaves, yes, battery-bright, but even the acorn-strewn tarmac beneath my feet gleamed. Cloudless, the sky was such a brilliant blue that when the eagle first came into view, as big as any living thing I’d seen in the sky, it stood out in bold contrast. For all its size, it floated like a paper airplane, gliding in smooth, wide circles until, at last, it passed directly overhead, low enough to see in detail, from the telltale white head down to the yellow talons curled and tucked against a wedge of white tail. I stood stock still, elated, and watched till it wheeled out of sight.
It was the best look I’d ever gotten at a bald eagle in the wild — if two blocks from my house on a busy Lebanon street can be called the wild. And while, in the sixteen years I’ve lived in the Upper Valley, I’d seen eagles only twice, this was my third sighting in two months. Friends in Hartford had also seen them near their house over the summer. I am not a wildlife expert, but to my mind that said there must be more eagles around. Right?
“Seeing an eagle doesn’t tell you as much about the population as you might think,” says Chris Martin, a senior biologist with New Hampshire Audubon. That scientist’s disclaimer out of the way, Martin confirms it — there are more bald eagles in the Upper Valley than there were even ten years ago. Kind of a lot more.
It’s been a rough road for the bald eagle since it was adopted as a national symbol in 1782. Loss of habitat, hunting (eagles were considered a threat to livestock), and lead poisoning were common causes of a steady decline when, in 1940, Congress made it illegal to kill, sell, or own a bald eagle. It was a case of too little too late, though, and the near-coup de grace came in the mid-20th century with the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide that leached into waterways and fish populations. DDT was banned in 1972, but again, the damage was already done. Eagles who ate pesticide-tainted fish produced egg shells too thin to be incubated, and by the time the bald eagle was officially declared endangered in the late 1960s, there were less than five hundred nesting pairs left. Which only makes it sweeter that bald eagles can be counted as a conservation success story. In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a total of nearly 10,000 nesting pairs, and the following year, the bird was removed from the list of threatened and endangered species.
Proof is evident in New Hampshire and Vermont, home to an eagle population that’s been growing steadily for the last few decades.
“There was a time in the ‘90s,” says Martin, “when we could just rattle it off, because it was a handful of pairs — four, five, six — but in 2020, we were able to confirm 76 pairs in the state of New Hampshire.” A similar increase is happening in Vermont.
“There was a big jump in fledgling numbers this year,” says Vermont Audubon conservation biologist Margaret Fowle, referring to the number of new eagles that successfully left the nest. “We had a jump in breeding pairs from 33 to 38,” she adds, “and there are three new pairs that did not breed but held a territory.” These statistics are for the entire state, but the Connecticut River Valley is prime territory for these largely aquatic-based animals, and nests in the Upper Valley section of the river are on the rise.
It was a rare sunny day in early December when Martin took me — masked up, in separate cars — to have a look. Our first stop was the Wilder Dam, a favored spot. (“You can almost always see one in the winter at the Wilder dam,” says Fowle, “this time of year they tend to congregate where there’s open water.”) So, ok, we didn’t see any eagles, but it was there at the dam that I learned I had been looking for them in the wrong place, namely the sky.
“They do some nest maintenance in the winter months,” says Martin, “so they might be bringing some sticks in, but they’ll only do that for an hour in the day, and the rest of the day they sit around.” They’re birds, they like to sit in trees, lesson learned. It was the next stop, however, that was the real eye opener.
At the end of a residential street near the river in Hartford, complete with fluttering flags and a steadily barking dog, Martin pointed out the nest. High in a towering pine, it was, like the birds themselves, huge (nests range from five to nine feet in diameter, three to five in depth, large enough for a human being to sit in). And it was strangely beautiful; intricately woven from small branches and large sticks, it reminded me of an antique Japanese basket I’d once seen in a museum. Arguably more striking, however, was the fact that, far from sitting in some remote and inaccessible wilderness, it was right there, easily visible from at least two houses, practically in one’s backyard. We moved on, this time to a view of a nest tree on the backside of the big box stores lining 12A, then to one along River Road in Plainfield. Each nest was startling in its obviousness — if you didn’t know to look, they easily escaped notice, but once seen, they were impossible to miss. “Twenty years ago, you had to go maybe 15 miles from one eagle nest to the next,” Martin told me, “now we’re to the point where we have nests within two miles of each other.”
In Plainfield, he indicated an aluminum shield, several feet high and spray-painted brown, that circled the bottom of the nest tree. Meant to deter climbing predators, it had been installed back when the New Hampshire eagle population still needed that kind of help. “We don’t bother with them anymore,” said Martin, “they’re doing fine on their own.”
In fact, helping bald eagles rebound has been what Martin calls “an easy lift.” Relatively speaking. “It can be hard to know how conservation should work,” he says, “do you focus on one aspect, or do you go wide-angle and work on general ecological health?” Both Martin and Fowle refer to the idea of specialized species — those animals that eat only one thing, for instance, and are thus subject more intrinsically to habitat loss and climate change — versus an animal like the bald eagle. “They’re such opportunistic hunters in terms of what they eat,” says Fowle about bald eagles, “they’re not specializing on any one kind of fish, they eat carrion. The less specialized a species is, the less vulnerable it is.” (Fowle and Martin both mentioned the increasing, fairly dangerous frequency of bald eagles landing on I-91 to feast on roadkill.)
Fowle and Martin also each stress the partnership with their respective state agencies — Vermont Fish and Wildlife, New Hampshire Fish and Game — and how these partnerships, along with large numbers of volunteers, have made the most of very limited funding. The upside is that, as these partnerships make headway, direct intervention is scaled back — like the tree shields, banding efforts in both states were discontinued — in favor of hands-off monitoring of territories and, more importantly, nests and their productivity. In fact, with an animal like the bald eagle, keeping tabs is among the most important aspects of maintaining healthy populations. “Back in the ‘40s,” says Martin, “no one knew the first wave of eagles was gone until there were no more adult birds. Because no one was watching.”
Which makes a kind of sense. It can be easy in the Upper Valley to take nature for granted; it’s here all around us, too easily cast as a mere backdrop to the hurdles and hassles of our everyday lives, or as our own personal pleasure grounds when we need a break. But it takes only a minute shift in perspective, as easy as turning one’s glance from the sky to the trees, to see that there are giants in our midst. Our neighbors, living wild lives alongside our own, part of the web into which we are all woven.
To participate in the 2021 Vermont Winter Bald Eagle Survey, go to Your Eagle Eyes are Needed to Help with the 2021 Winter Bald Eagle Survey | Audubon Vermont. If you’re interested in volunteering with New Hampshire Audubon, check out their website at: Volunteering and Citizen Science - NH Audubon.
Hazel-Dawn Dumpert lives and writes in Lebanon, New Hampshire.