A bald eagle soars majestically
above the forest along the southern Vermont/New Hampshire border.
—1:30 p.m. The nesting eagle waits—instinctively, iconically. Eagles are the largest raptors in eastern North America, Martin tells me, with wingspans of up to seven feet. Females are larger than males. The bird on the nest is likely female, since females do the majority of the incubation. As Martin speaks, he scans the surroundings: woods, riverbank, sky. You never know what might show up. Sure enough, a dark spot in the sky becomes an avian silhouette, becomes not the awaited eagle mate but an osprey, banking toward a power-line tower. Martin scrambles to resite the scope. “Here, watch him come in,” he says. “They’re working on their nest, so he probably has a stick. Does he?” I tell him no stick, that the bird in the nest rose and lifted her tail as her mate flew in. There was a flurry of wings, and then he was off again. Martin laughs: “Mating. They’re getting to know each other again after wintering apart.” Meanwhile, all is quiet on the eagles’ nest. Eagle pairs don’t winter apart; season after season in their 20-year lifespan they remain together in the vicinity of their nest—though generally not in it. The nest, Martin explains, is more like a nursery than a home. The eagles incubate eggs and raise chicks there, but their home is more akin to the whole tree and its environs. There’s a rustling in the trees. A man emerges: Bill Dean, self-described eagle fanatic, dressed head to toe in camouflage, including a camo Harley–Davidson cap. An eagle tattoo covers the right side of his neck. Dean is so smitten that he spends all his time off from his job at a plastics plant observing and photographing eagles. He tells Martin that he’s just come from four hours at the second Hinsdale nesting site. The two men admire the shots he took: an eagle in flight, wings spread; close-ups of both birds at the nest. In his work for New Hampshire Audubon on behalf of the state’s Fish & Game Department, Martin needs people like Dean, serious hobbyists who know the eagles well. “They’re my eyes on the ground,” he says. Volunteers log hours of observation, help band birds, install predator guards. Martin views his own role as raptor protector and advocate—and as communicator. He’s written magazine pieces and is the voice of Audubon on a weekly radio segment. “I really want people to understand what’s out there,” he says.
—When the eagle mate still hasn’t shown up by 2:30, we head to the second nesting site. Martin carries “Keep Back” signs that he’ll post around the nest. Later, as he pounds them in—in the woods, away from the path, so as not to inadvertently advertise the site—the nesting eagle will crane her neck to watch, seemingly less wary than curious. Martin is rooting for her during what can be a fraught undertaking. Last year she and her mate (a young, leg-banded male from New York) hatched eggs; then suddenly one day their nest was empty, the eaglets likely stolen by a predator. The walk to the nest takes a half-hour. Downstream from the dam, the river is turgid and spring-swollen. Ring-necked ducks swim in pairs, and the smell of freshly spread manure hangs heavy. Around a bend, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant comes into view. Martin points out an apparatus on the side of a smokestack: a nesting box for a pair of peregrines. Then, as we round another bend, incredibly, it happens: An eagle is there, flying overhead. The birdsong quiets, the industrial hum drops away, until I hear—I’m sure I hear—the sound of wing against air. The eagle dips, then banks right, headed downstream with outstretched wings, all but filling the sky. READ MORE: Find a list of the best places to see bald eagles.