In mid-May, Joshua Maloney was driving on Cape Cod near Barnstable when a Bald Eagle swooped low just 10 feet above his Subaru Forester. Two years ago, he would have kept on driving. But now he volunteers with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, so he decided to follow it.
Maloney pulled off the road, got out of his car, and cut into a grassy former airfield to watch the bird. Even without binoculars he could see that the eagle was carrying sticks before it disappeared over a stand of trees. It must be building a nest, he thought, and he had a hunch where it might be: a lake a half mile away where the eagle could easily find fish. Sure enough, after procuring a kayak and scouting the area, Maloney spotted a massive cluster of branches at the top of a pine tree in the woods fringing the lake. The eagle landed right next to it.
Maloney left to buy a camera, then came back the next day and took more than 500 pictures of the nest. In several of those pictures, the fuzzy head of a Bald Eagle chick stares back at him. When he reported the news to Mass Audubon, he learned it was the first documented eaglet born on Cape Cod in 115 years.
Finding this eaglet was a watershed moment for conservationist organizations Mass Audubon, which is not affiliated with National Audubon, and Mass Wildlife, both of which have been working to revitalize the Bald Eagle population on the Cape since 1982. There are now more than 80 confirmed nests in Massachusetts, including 10 new ones in 2020 alone. As a result, the species was downgraded from “threatened” to “special concern” on the Massachusetts endangered species list in January.
The next day, a small research team from Mass Wildlife banded the five-week-old chick by placing a small metal ring around its ankle—the only eagle chick banded in 2020 due to pandemic-related restrictions. Banding birds helps ornithologists keep track of state-protected species like Bald Eagles. State ornithologist Andrew Vitz says the first eaglet on the Cape in over a century made him worth the extra effort.
Volunteer observers and birders like Maloney are instrumental in keeping tabs on the state’s eagles, Vitz says. “Most of the information that comes to us is from the public, and we really rely on that." For his part, Maloney feels lucky to have found birdwatching when he needed it most. “It’s been life-changing,” he says.
With wingspans of six feet or more, Bald Eagles are the largest nesting birds of prey in Massachusetts. Over the course of several months they construct enormous nests known as aeries—some as wide as 10 feet and weighing 1,000 pounds—in tall, sturdy trees near bodies of water.
Bald Eagles were once widespread nationally, although their historical numbers in Massachusetts aren’t known. When they became the national bird in 1782, it was estimated there were at least 100,000 eagles nesting across the country. Bald Eagle numbers declined in Massachusetts as deforestation reached its peak in the mid-1800s, and when people increasingly hunted the birds for sport. The shooting problem had such a significant impact that, in 1940, Congress was moved to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act (now also extended to Golden Eagles), which outlawed killing or harassing wild eagles as well as trading their parts.
Then, in the 1940s, another deadly threat appeared: The pesticide DDT, which farmers sprayed on crops. “It interfered with eagles' ability to metabolize calcium, so their eggshells were gradually thinning over the years,” says Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon’s Director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program. “Some of these birds were eventually laying eggs with practically no shells.” By the mid-1960s, Bald Eagle numbers had dropped below 500 nationwide.
Thanks largely to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which blew the whistle on the pesticide’s harmful effects on wildlife, the U.S. government banned DDT in 1973. By then, no Bald Eagles were known to nest in Massachusetts.
Nine years later, Mass Audubon and Mass Wildlife embarked on a Bald Eagle restoration program on Quabbin Reservoir in western Massachusetts. The program launched on the heels of a similar program in New York that had yielded promising results. “There was evidence that we could do it here and be successful,” Vitz says.
From 1982 to 1988, biologists brought in 41 eaglets from Michigan and Canada and reared them in artificial nest sites known as hack towers. The ornithologists wore eagle puppets on their hands while feeding the birds to keep human interaction to a minimum. It wasn’t all smooth sailing—one chick crash landed into the reservoir while fledging—but after five years, the birds reached maturity and started to nest. In 1989, two eaglets hatched in one of the artificial nests on the Quabbin Reservoir.
The population has steadily grown since then and eventually moved eastward, but Bald Eagle chicks hadn’t been seen on Cape Cod until this May, when Maloney spied the first documented eaglet since 1905. It took only three decades after the restoration’s first two eaglets were born to reach this milestone. “They took their time to move east," Vitz says, because eagles tend to return to nest near the same place they fledge, in this case more than 100 miles west of the Cape. They likely didn’t migrate east to Cape Cod until competition over ideal nesting areas pushed them out—which indicates the western population is flourishing.
The birds are doing so well, in fact, that competition with each other and other raptors over nest sites remains the main threat facing the state’s Bald Eagles, according to Vitz. This year, Bald Eagles looking to usurp existing nests killed chicks in two aeries in eastern Massachusetts, both closely observed over webcam. “People watching were devastated,” says Vitz. “They’d named the chicks. It was a whole ordeal.” The first nesting eagle pair ever documented on Martha’s Vineyard also lost their eggs this year due to an altercation with an Osprey who happened to be the original owner of said nest.
Despite these incidents, ornithologists like Vitz expect Bald Eagle numbers to continue to climb. “The habitat is now there to support more eagles than we have today,” he says. That includes Cape Cod’s eaglet, who is expected to fledge sometime within the next three weeks. Whenever it does, Vitz is nearly certain he'll hear the news not from a formal scientific survey but from an avid local birdwatcher.