The bald eagle has made a remarkable comeback in the Upper Valley and across New Hampshire and Vermont over the last few decades. From the mid-1980s when there were no nesting/territorial pairs of bald eagles in either state, NH now has 41, and VT has 16. Ornithologists credit that dramatic recovery to several key factors. It includes the 1970s ban on the use of the pesticide DDT, reforestation of New England, state and federal protections, (the bald eagle was until recently listed as an endangered species), repopulating programs and protection of wintering and breeding habitat.
To monitor the twin state bald eagle population there is an annual mid-winter survey that takes place in January. This year’s occurred last weekend, and for the first time I participated, working a survey route that ran from the north side of Wilder Dam up to the bridge that links fairly and Orford. Getting to run that route was fortuitous as I am, through several years experience, familiar with the places bald eagles are likely to appear.
That having been said, I set out with low expectations. Bald eagles like open water. It enables them to fish, but at this point, the Connecticut is a very long skating rink from the north side of Wilder Dam to Orford and beyond bringing to mind Joni Mitchell’s song “River” with its sorrowful lament, ”Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”
Fortunately, as I set out south from the Lyme Bridge along River Rd., the morning was bright and clear and the wind calm. That made for very pleasant, by New England winter standards, conditions for being outdoors. Further, the sun’s low angle fully illuminated in great detail the trees and their branches that lined the Vermont shore across the way. A bald eagle would have had a difficult time remaining unobserved in such a vividly etched landscape.
But even with ideal viewing conditions, eagles have to be there to be seen, and there weren’t cooperating. This also proved to be the case as I stopped to check likely haunts such as the Ompompanoosuc outflow in Norwich where I had seen one flying just two weeks previously and the Ledyard Bridge where the situation was no better.
I ran a few errands in Hanover, then looped around on I-89 and I-91 to Wilder Village and its eponymous dam. Crossing over the Connecticut in W. Leb, I noticed the river was open. That boded well for the team assigned the route going south from the dam, and it was. It reported two bald eagles behind the J. C. Penney Plaza and another at the Plainfield – Cornish line.
At the Wilder Dam, I took a long look downstream in hopes of seeing a bald eagle even if I couldn’t count it on my list. None seen. Then it was north on US Rt. 5 to Fairlee. That measured, hour-long ride proved equally unproductive, but I could have guessed that.
Crossing the river into Orford and turning south on NH Rt. 10, my hopes were up. This route would take me past the state’s Reed Waterfowl Management Area where there is a bald eagle nest. Maybe, just maybe, one of its residents would be hanging out. No such luck. Meanwhile, a birding colleague reported seeing a bald eagle at Bunten Farm, which is sited just three mile north of Orford. Timing is everything!
Now it was back onto River Rd. for the return to the Lyme Bridge. I have seen bald eagles on that stretch, notably between Lyme’s North Thetford and East Thetford roads, but I returned to the bridge with no more postings than I had when I started out four hours earlier. In a last effort for success, I kept going beyond the bridge all the way down again to the Hanover line. The view was beautiful with the sinking, winter sun illuminating the landscape with glowing, silvery/golden lighting, but apparently the eagles weren’t interested. None spotted.
The day’s count? Zero. The ice cover was clearly a deterrent to success. Turns out that was the case for the team that did the White River from Hartford up to Sharon. A frozen over river meant that their very large celebrated and experienced group also came a cropper.
And so it goes. Readers of this page will know this was not the first time I went out on a “mission” and was denied success. Consider looking for the tufted duck at the Charlotte, VT ferry dock (see “Lifers” 2014-03-07) or seeking in vain greater white-fronted geese down in Vernon, VT (see “A Wild Goose Chase 2014-03-28).
But in the world of birding, a zero count is not a useless count. Not seeing any bald eagles still provided a useful piece of information about our national bird’s habits. Nothing can turn out to be something. To paraphrase a famous Holmes and Watson exchange,
“Now, Watson, look at the scene, and tell me what you see. "
"Why Holmes, I see nothing."
"Exactly, Watson, you see nothing.”