This is from a series of posts by MABA resident artist Barry Van Dusen
I know that spring arrives a bit earlier in the Connecticut River Valley, so I head out to Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton this morning. I drive first to the seasonal bridge on Old Springfield Road. This is where the Mill River (which runs through the Sanctuary) empties into The Oxbow. It’s a classic river floodplain landscape.
At the bridge (which is closed to vehicular traffic at the moment), I meet John Such of Chicopee, a retired high school science teacher. He knows the area and offers to lead me to a Bald Eagle’s nest on the Sanctuary! John notes that this is the only Bald Eagle nest on a Mass Audubon property.
The expansive grasslands to the north of the bridge attract a variety of grassland birds, and these fields are carefully managed by the Society to provide for the needs of open country birds, many of which are declining in Massachusetts. As an artist, I appreciate the wide open vistas and distant views – quite unlike the landscapes near my home in central Massachusetts. Looking to the southeast across The Oxbow, the handsome hills of the Mt. Tom Range rise above the western bank of the Connecticut River.
We follow a track up along Ned’s Ditch – a large wooded swale between the fields that supports a marsh and floodplain forest. We hear the creaking calls of wood-ducks and the “conk-a-rees” of Red-winged Blackbirds.
The Eagle nest, by its sheer size, is easy to locate, but to get the best views requires careful positioning of my scope and field stool on the hillside about the “Ditch”. I settle down to watch…
The nest is placed in a main crotch near the top of a large, live tree (oak?), and is truly MASSIVE in size – so much so that the bird’s head, protruding above the mass of sticks and twigs, looks ridiculously tiny! I later learned that Bald Eagles make the largest nest of any single pair of birds!
The bird sits on the nest throughout the hour and a half that I watch. This could be either the male or the female, since both take turns incubating the eggs. The other member of the pair comes to the nest at one point, and appears to pass an article of food to the sitting bird, (though I couldn’t make out what), then quickly departs. Except for an episode where the sitting bird rises up and works diligently at something in the nest, all is quiet. I took this to be a round of egg-turning, which happens every 1 to 2 hours.
I decide to do a painting, but find that the largest paper in my pack is 9″ x 12″. A larger sheet would have been more suitable for the subject, but I start a watercolor, anyway. For the sake of my picture, I make the birds head a little larger, and raise it up a little higher than it typically appeared from my vantage.
From my location on the edge of the “Ditch”, I can look to the west and see the nests of a great blue heron colony about a quarter mile away. I scan the nests with my scope, and spot a Great Horned Owl sitting on one of the nests! It’s a distant view, and my photo is rather fuzzy, but you can just make out the bulky, rounded shape of the owl.
I wondered how the owl and the eagle might interact as nesting neighbors. Great Horned Owls have been known to commandeer eagle nests and drive off the eagles – apparently the only native bird capable of doing so.