Diligent eagle watcher documents first for Barton Cove nesting pair
NORTHFIELD — For the first time in its 25 years, the Barton Cove bald eagles’ nest fledged three eaglets.
Wildlife photographer William Dean of Monson captured the eaglets’ development from fuzzy hatchlings to fearsome hunters. This week, he shared his photos, footage and stories at Northfield Mountain Recreation and Environmental Center.
Dean has been photographing bald eagles since he bought his first dSLR camera in 2008. He bought the equipment intending to shoot his son’s upcoming football games at the University of Buffalo.
Dean took his camera on a hike at the Quabbin Reservoir, and got his first shot of a bald eagle when the raptor flew overhead. From then, he was hooked.
Dean started staking out the Connecticut River island nest in April from the shoreline of the Barton Cove Campground, about 350 yards from the island. When he reviewed his footage and photos after one mid-month trip, he got a pleasant surprise.
“I got so excited when I saw the third eaglet,” he said. “I wasn’t sure there were three until I watched my videos at home.”
He knew then that he’d be coming back quite often.
“I usually focus on one location each year,” Dean explained. “When I saw that there were three eaglets there, I knew I had to stick with the nest.”
He shot from shore for the first eight weeks after the eaglets hatched, so he wouldn’t disturb them. Then, he set to the waters, launching his small canoe from the public boat ramp in Gill and paddling up to the edge of the island.
The Barton Island nest was built in 1989, though the nesting pairs later moved on to a new nest on the other side of the island. Last year was the first time three eaglets hatched and learned to fly on their own, or “fledged.”
Three-eagle fledges are rare, as a female eagle will lay a maximum of three eggs per year, and not all hatch or survive to fledge.
Dean watched the three eaglets grow throughout the spring and summer, from the first hungry, squawking baby bird, to their first flights, to the time when they began to fend for themselves.
They’ve gone from defenseless babies to deadly birds of prey.
“The crows were terrible (to the eaglets) this year,” he said, explaining a picture where a handful of crows flew about the nest. “The adult eagles will chase them off, and they’ll kill the crows if they can catch them. They’re small and more agile than eagles.”
The crows are just a nuisance, he said, the young eaglets’ only predators being the great horned owl and raccoons. The eaglets quickly outgrow those threats, though.
Occasionally, the adult eagles had to chase off their own kind. Intruding, semi-mature eagles would land near the Barton Island nest from time to time, but they never got to stay for long.
Dean was nervous when one of the eaglets took a long fall from the treetop nest.
“It hit every branch on the way down, all the way to the ground and lay there a while,” he said.
He feared that the eaglet had been critically injured. His worries were short-lived, though, and he was relieved to see all three eaglets up and about on later visits to the cove.
He got to know the personality of the eaglets as they grew.
The larger two used to pick on their youngest sibling, he said, pushing it out of the way to get at the fish their parents brought them.
In a later video, that same small bird could be seen forcefully pushing one of its parents away from a fresh fish, which it began to devour. In a photo set, an eaglet sat next to a stump, with a fish on top. As one of the adults landed nearby, the young bird chased it off, defending its meal.
“They get aggressive as they get older,” he said. “It’s all part of becoming an eagle.”
Because the eaglets are so hungry, he said, the adults will often eat part of a fish before bringing it back to the brood. Several of Dean’s photographs showed adult eagles flying homeward with headless fish.
Sometimes, they’ll bite off more than they can chew. Dean said adult eagles can carry up to five pounds on a continuous flight. Sometimes, they’ll catch larger fish and “hop” them home. They pick up their prey, fly upward, drop it and repeat, as many times as they need to make it where they’re going.
Eventually, the adults will stop bringing food to their young, and let them fend for themselves. Shortly after, the eaglets leave home. Dean last saw the eaglets on Aug. 6, flying below the Turners Falls dam.
The three eaglets will likely not nest in the Barton Cove area. Dean said bald eagles fly a wide range, covering two or three nearby states. When it’s their time to breed, he said, they will typically nest within a 200-mile radius from their birthplace.
Their parents, though, will probably be back this spring to hatch a new brood. Bald eagles usually return to roost in the same nest year after year. That could be quite a while — the birds live up to 48 years in captivity, and about half that in the wild.
Dean’s hour-long presentation represented a sliver of the time he’s spent at Barton Cove.
“I spent about 300 hours photographing the eagles at Barton Cove last year, including travel time,” Dean said. “I shot more than 60 hours of video and 27,000 photos and traveled 3,000 miles.”
Dean went to Barton Cove 30 times between March and August, and made the 100-mile round trip once more in December, to check out the nest in the winter. Sometimes, he’d get up as early as 2:30, so he could get to Gill and launch his canoe or hike the shoreline as the sun came up.
“I was out so much that my wife and daughter wondered if I was having an affair,” he joked. “I was, but with the eagles — not another woman.”
Dean takes an assortment of equipment along on his shoots.
Dean uses a Nikon D7000 for his primary camera, with a 300mm lens and an extension tube for an effective zoom of 600mm. He mounts a 200mm lens to a second camera, which he uses for closer shots, as well as low light. For video, he uses a less-expensive point-and-shoot camera clamped to the rear of a spotting scope, zooming in 60 times closer than normal. He also takes video with a durable, weatherproof “Go-Pro,” which he can wear on a headband or hold high above his head.
Dean enjoys giving presentations on eagles, and sharing his photos, videos and stories with others. He has photo and video galleries on his website, catalogued by date and location, at www.cutloosewildlife.com.
You can reach David Rainville at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279