One morning in 1969, Maine Audubon and friends motored up the Kennebec River to Swan Island in hopes of seeing a Bald Eagle. A sighting was no sure thing in those days, as the pesticide DDT and other factors had worked to reduce the state’s Bald Eagle population to just 14 nesting pairs. The 1969 trip was considered a success after locating a single bird.
This past weekend, for the 50th straight year, Maine Audubon and friends once again motored up the Kennebec in search of Bald Eagles. The intervening decades have been good for these majestic birds, as the results of federal, state, and local efforts to ban DDT and list the eagle on the Endangered Species Act have resulted in a major population rebound. In spite of windy conditions we saw at least 47 individual Bald Eagles on the trip.
The incredible conservation success story of the Bald Eagle and the Golden Anniversary of Maine Audubon’s Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting Bay trip combined to lend an air of celebration to the day. We were honored to be joined once again by Dick Anderson, former Executive Director of Maine Audubon and organizer of the inaugural 1969 trip. Dick’s enthusiasm was infectious, and his deep knowledge of Maine’s natural and cultural history kept us hanging on every word, as it has been for decades.
Towards the end of the trip, Maine Audubon’s current Executive Director Andrew Beahm, former Executive Director and past eagle trip leader Bill Ginn, and Staff Naturalist Doug Hitchcox honored Dick with a framed photo of Bald Eagles and a proclamation written by Representative Chellie Pingree, to be read on the floor of the House of Representatives. It was a great moment, befitting one of Maine’s most important conservationists.
We also saw a lot of great birds. Eagle-spotting was slow in the morning as high winds kept birds perched in the thick stuff, and also made it difficult to hold binoculars steady. Things calmed down as we made the turn by Bath Iron Works and progressed up the Kennebec, and we started seeing eagles everywhere. We spied several adults perched in pines along the river — their white heads and tails giving them away against the green backdrop — and caught both adults and juveniles soaring overhead. At one point we watched one eagle carrying a gray squirrel in its talons, an unusual eagle meal and a likely victim of the 2018 surge in squirrel roadkill.
The hits kept coming as we circled Swan Island, the location of the lone Bald Eagle sighting in 1969. The small wooded island has one of the largest concentrations of eagle nests in Maine, and we saw at least thirty birds on and over the island. As we turned to head home we checked the tally and realized we’d seen a total of 47 individual birds, actually a slightly lower count than in recent years (the wind hurt), but obviously far above the inaugural trip upriver.
There were other birds, as well. Hundreds of ducks — including Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, Mallard, and Common Mergansers — were swirling above the wild rice at the mouth of the Abagadasset River in Merrymeeting Bay. Good numbers of Bonaparte’s and Laughing Gulls were seen throughout, some still transitioning out of their black-headed breeding plumage.
A great time was had by all, and participants couldn’t help but wonder how many eagles Maine Audubon would see on our 100th running of the trip. Join us in 2068 to find out!
Species counts are raw numbers from the collective eBird lists and may represent double-counted individuals. See the segmented checklists, linked below, for more details on each species.
Canada Goose – 281
Greater Yellowlegs – 1
Common Eider – 49
Blue-winged Teal – 100
Mallard – 201
Green-winged Teal – 600
Common Merganser – 20
Duck sp. – 200 (estimate)
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) -13
Mourning Dove – 1
Semipalmated Sandpiper – 20
Peep sp. – 5
Black Guillemot – 1
Bonaparte’s Gull – 30
Laughing Gull – 17
Ring-billed Gull – 4
Herring Gull – 36
Great Black-backed Gull – 15
Common Loon – 3
Double-crested Cormorant – 66
Great Blue Heron – 3
Turkey Vulture – 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk – 4
Osprey – 2
Bald Eagle – 47
Red-tailed Hawk – 1
Hawk sp. – 1
Belted Kingfisher – 2
Merlin – 1
American Crow – 16
Common Raven – 1
American Goldfinch – 1
Segmented checklists were kept throughout the trip to put species in representative habitats. You can click the blue “view” links to see each list, or if you were on the trip you can click the red “Add to my eBird” link to automatically add these lists to your eBird account.
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section I – View – Add to My eBird
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section II – View – Add to My eBird
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section III – View – Add to My eBird
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section IV – View – Add to My eBird
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section V – View – Add to My eBird
Bald Eagles of Merrymeeting – 2018 – Section VI – View – Add to My eBird
A big thank you to everyone who joined the trip this year for continuing to make this a highlight of Maine Audubon’s trip calendar. Thanks, too, to Cap’n Fish’s Boothbay Boat Trips for their excellent boat and navigation, and to eagle-eyed eagle-spotters Linda Woodard, Turk Duddy, and other incredible volunteers for helping count all the birds we saw.