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Home, sweet home; Eagles more acclimated to local habitats.

Byline: George Barnes

WEBSTER -- If eagles wanted privacy, they would live at the Quabbin Reservoir, but more and more of the majestic birds are building nests on heavily populated lakes, sharing territory with humans and their pets.

At Webster Lake a pair of bald eagles living in a large nest since 2011 share a tiny island with a family and their dog. They ignore the dog and the dog ignores them. They are also undaunted by constant boat activity, and even occasionally follow fishing boats hoping for an easy meal.

State Ornithologist Andrew Vitz says bald eagles continue to expand their territory since they were reintroduced in the state from 1982 to 1988. The most recent count found 46 territorial pairs, most of which are nesting, many in populated areas. The pressure to find new homes, and the tendency to live close to where they were born, has bald eagles nesting in places no one would have expected 33 years ago when the first transplants were settled in Massachusetts.

"They started in the Quabbin, and as their territories filled up they kept finding smaller lakes and ponds,'' Mr. Vitz said. "Their ability to acclimate to people is much more than people thought.''

Bald eagles were reintroduced in the state at the Quabbin Reservoir. It is also where the first successful chicks were hatched in 1989. The reservoir is relatively isolated, as were early nesting areas at the Wachusett Reservoir and along the Connecticut and Merrimac Rivers.

But today the birds are comfortable in noisy, busy places.

Mr. Vitz said biologists were not sure that would be the case. "I think everyone was a little surprised by that,'' he said.

It is not unusual around the country to see eagles in populated areas, and in Massachusetts they seem to be learning to accept a higher level of activity as a price to pay for finding a nesting area where they won't be chased out by resident pairs.

To get a better handle on the health and number of nesting pairs in the state, the state changed in 2013 from conducting a midwinter eagle count, focused on finding as many eagles in the state as possible, to a spring nesting survey identifying nests and nesting pairs in the state. This year's survey will be held April 10.

Bald eagles are listed as a threatened species in Massachusetts, but have been taken off the endangered and threatened status by the federal government. Mr. Vitz said the birds may eventually be delisted in Massachusetts as well if healthy populations continue to grow. It is a decision that will be made following extensive study by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

As far as anyone in the state has determined, in Central Massachusetts there are eagles breeding at six bodies of water, including 10 breeding pairs at the Quabbin Reservoir and one each on Webster Lake, Lake Shirley in Lunenburg, Pine Hill Reservoir in Rutland, Wachusett Reservoir in West Boylston and Clinton and Quaboag Pond in Brookfield and East Brookfield. Mr. Vitz said there may be other pairs they have not found.

The Webster bald eagles, named George and Martha in a contest held by the Webster Lake Association, have been nesting at the lake for nearly five years. They successfully hatched their first chick named Freedom in 2013. They hatched a pair of chicks in 2014. George and Martha are the only nesting eagles at the lake. Other eagles pass through, but they are eventually chased away by the resident eagles, which remain at the lake year-round.

Allen Huefner has been keeping records of the Webster Lake eagle pair for the past three years, recording video and digital images using 6- and 4-inch Meade telescopes pointed at the nest some 3,000 feet away on Little Island.

The nest is massive, sitting near the top of a pine tree that looks like it is struggling to hold the weight. The nest, and Martha, managed to remain on the perch in 40-plus mile-per-hour winds Wednesday and Thursday even though the tree at times swayed violently. There is a good reason why the mother eagle stayed at her post. She is sitting on at least one egg.

"This is the third season they've laid eggs,'' Mr. Huefner said. "It is possible they have two eggs.''

Although he has not seen the eggs, Mr. Huefner said based on behavior of the female eagle, he believes there is a second egg. The egg or eggs were laid at 3:45 p.m. on March 12. He knows that because he reviews his tapes every morning to see what is new with his adopted birds.

Mr. Huefner said that in the past, when the eagle laid a single egg, it quickly settled down in the nest and stayed there, keeping the egg warm. He said this year the bird was more restless.

"It laid two last season as well and went through the same kind of behavior,'' he said.

Mr. Huefner is a retired electrical engineer who lives in a large home on Lakeside Avenue. He became interested in eagles in 2008 when he and his wife Kathleen traveled to Alaska and had many opportunities to view eagles. He said Alaska has more than half of the more than 11,000 bald eagles in the United States.

"We just fell in love with them,'' he said.

Webster Lake has had regular bald eagle visitors since 2009. In 2010, Martha and George moved there, first building on Cobble Island on Middle Pond. In August 2011 the nest was knocked down by Hurricane Irene. Later that year, the bald eagles began building a new nest on Little Island. That came to an abrupt halt. Mr. Huefner said in the summer of 2012 a medical helicopter headed to a nearby hospital swooped low over the nest, spooking the eagles. The birds abandoned the nest, but in late November, they returned and started working on building it again. Since then they have had a few scares, including when workers were putting a roof on a nearby house, but they have stuck with the nest.

"On March 6, 2013 they laid an egg, which hatched,'' he said. "It was the first eagle born on Webster Lake in 108 years,'' he said, citing local historians.

The chick he named Freedom after it was banded on July 4. It stayed with the nest for about 20 weeks before it went off on its own. Bit it did not stay away for very long. The bird returned 18 days later in rough shape.

Mr. Huefner said it appeared to be weak and sick. It took three days, but Martha and George accepted it back and cared for it for two months before sending it off again.

Freedom has since returned to the lake at least once. It landed one day on the Huefner's boat house to eat a bird for lunch, unperturbed by photographs and video being taken of it by the excited homeowners. The number of a band on its leg confirmed that it was Freedom. This time Freedom was healthy and not looking to move back home. Eventually the bird left again, likely looking for its own nesting site.

The birds provide entertainment and a few surprises for the residents of Webster Lake. Mr. Huefner said the eagles regularly follow fishing boats on the lake during the summer, hoping for a free meal. He said fishermen sometimes throw back small fish that they catch. When the fish go back into the water they are temporarily stunned. If an eagle sees it, the bird swoops in and grabs the fish before it can revive and swim away. In one case, an eagle took a fish right out of a boat.

This winter, with the lake frozen over from late January into March, part of what helped keep the eagles alive were fish cast off by ice fishermen. Mr. Huefner said they also found other sources of food. He said a friend saw one of the birds grab an unsuspecting squirrel standing on the branch of a tree.

The state regularly bands eagle chicks when they can safely get up into the nests. The bands are in field-readable colors that can easily be identified using photographs or binoculars. The information they provide will tell scientists their dispersal rates, where they are wintering and other information helpful in ensuring the population remains healthy and growing.

Contact George Barnes at george.barnes@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @georgebarnesTG
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Barnes, George
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 22, 2015
Words:1421
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