text and photos by Brian Willson

Working at my desk a few mornings ago I heard the neighborhood crows suddenly begin hollering at something. Typically, this means some kind of hawk has decided to perch in one of the big oaks out back—but in this case I looked up to see three or four crows flapping in a hurry over toward Route 1 out front. In any case, I’m conditioned to grab my camera when I hear hollering crows, so I did that and raced out my front office door. I heard the crows’ caws coming from somewhere, but I saw no hawk.

What I did see was an eagle. A big, handsome, adult bald eagle circling lazily in the cloudless winter sky maybe a hundred feet above the road. As I snapped off photos of the circling bird, it floated over toward Clam Cove, where I expect it was checking out ducks. Perhaps it was one of the resident pair that have nested at nearby Chickawaukie Lake each year for the past several, or perhaps it was a newcomer scanning the shores for potential nesting trees. Because whereas our resident songbirds haven’t even begun to think about returning north from their extended tropical vacations, it’s already nesting season if you’re an eagle. In fact, many Maine eagles had already begun sitting on nests in February.

These days we’re lucky enough to have as many as 500 pairs of bald eagles nesting in Maine—a healthy population when you consider the ravages of DDT just a few decades ago. (RIP, Rachel Carson.) They’re recovering throughout the East, in fact—witness this live eagle nest cam feed from near Newport News, Virginia—but I’m still thrilled and astonished any time I look up and see one of these huge birds fly over my place as nonchalantly as if it were a herring gull. Which happens with great frequency.

Winter, it turns out is a great time to spot eagles. They tend to move off their far-flung nesting sites and collect along tidal shores, on frozen lake edges, and in other places where they can be sure of plenty of cold-weather food. The Maine-ly Poultry chicken farm on Route 1 in Warren, for instance. Just about any day in winter you can pull over and see two, three, even four dozen bald eagles of various ages perched out back of the place. (Also ravens, hawks, and other species.) Early and late in the season, when the ice of ponds is soft, you can often see eagles standing like sentinels on the iced-over surfaces. They stand about three feet tall.

One little known fact about bald eagles is that it takes five years for them to develop adult plumage, to grow their telltale white head- and tailfeathers. Young birds are brown or mottled-looking and therefore hard to ID—unless, of course, you can quickly gauge their size. There’s no bird around here that gets anywhere near as big.

So keep your eyes peeled for big soaring birds with impossibly long straight wings. And your ear tuned to the yells and scolding of crows. The latter will probably lead you to a red-tailed hawk—but there’s always a chance it’ll be an eagle.