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Region feels rapture for raptors

A merlin stretches out at Salisbury Beach State Reservation.

Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe

A merlin stretches out at Salisbury Beach State Reservation.

There is a reason that raptors capture people’s attention in a way that other birds may not.

“There’s a fascination with them; they’re so beautiful,” said George McLean, 78, of Medford, an award-winning wildlife photographer who tracked hawks at a nest in Cambridge for three years. “They’re the masters of the sky.’’

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There are four eagles wintering near the Mystic Lakes, Horn Pond, Spot Pond, and Spy Pond in the Winchester-Woburn-Medford area, McLean said, along with other interesting raptors such as the osprey, a type of hawk that hunts fish.

“Ever since they put the fish ladder in [at the Mystic Lake dam], it seems to help,” said McLean, making the correlation between the predators and a larger fish population.

For those who feel rapture for raptors, these are good times in Massachusetts. The population of eagles and peregrine falcons has made a comeback, and hawks and owls are plentiful as well. With the leaves off the trees, the winter is a particularly good time for observing birds of prey.

Chief among them is the bald eagle, which has made a comeback after a pesticide-linked population decrease during the 20th century.

“The eagle population has recovered strongly and is not finished yet,” said Tom French, assistant director for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife), who noted that in 2012 the bird was moved from “endangered” to “threatened” on the state’s endangered species list. It was taken off the federal list in 2007.

Earlier this month, MassWildlife announced that it would move the date and focus of its annual eagle survey. For more than 30 years, the January survey of wintering and resident birds provided a valuable tool for wildlife biologists who sought to return the breed to Massachusetts. Forty-one young eagles were relocated to the Quabbin Reservoir between 1982 and 1988. From eight eagles spotted in the 1979 survey, the number grew to 107 in 2011, including 38 nesting eagles. (Because of inclement weather, the 2012 survey is incomplete.)

This year the survey will be held in late March with the focus on the state’s breeding eagles.

“The Merrimack River is one of our hot spots for winter eagles,” French said, noting that eagles have long been attracted to the mouth of the river, where the open water offers good hunting for fish and waterfowl. “It was kind of slow to catch on for breeding, but now we have four nests.”

While the nesting pairs have moved around a bit, French identified those pairs as taking up residence in Newburyport-Salisbury-Amesbury, in Haverhill-West Newbury, in Methuen, and in Tyngsborough, on the Massachusetts portion of the river, which winds into New Hampshire.

“There’s more room on the Merrimack, so we’re going to get more,” French said.

The peregrine falcon has made a similar comeback, also bolstered by state restoration efforts, and French noted that the red-tailed hawk and Cooper’s hawk are thriving, as are various breeds of owl. (The American kestrel, a small breed of falcon, is still struggling.)

“The most common thing people see is the red-tailed hawk; that’s the big, white-chested bird they see along the interstate highway,” French said. “Red-tails are very common, and the Cooper’s hawk is just as common, but it’s a forest hawk so you’ll see them flying across the road, but won’t see them as often.”

The healthy population is reflected in the number of barred owls and red-tails that become road kill.

“It’s been either a good year or bad year — depending on your point of view — for barred owls, because there have been a lot of barred owls that have been hit by cars,” said David Larson, education coordinator for Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport.

Sanctuary director Bill Gette said people often bring the dead owls found along interstates 495 or 95 to the center. Younger species, including red-tailed hawks, are more likely to become road kill, because of their inexperience in hunting on a highway.

Larson said that in general, it’s tough to determine the owl population because the animal is secretive. French said there are thousands of hawks in the state.

French said there are 20 known nesting pairs of peregrine falcon. Although often confused with the hawk, it is a different, smaller breed that flies faster than any other. One pair lives at the Whittier Bridge on Interstate 95 in Newburyport, which is scheduled to be torn down. State wildlife officials have worked with the Massachusetts Highway Department and plan to put a nesting box on the new bridge.

Migrating peregrine falcons are common on Plum Island, and there is a pair that spends the winter on the City Hall tower in Gloucester. Others can be found in quarries in Saugus and Peabody.

The bird is a “cliff nester” that likes high spots, and some of the most visible pairs are found at Fox Hall at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the New Balance Shoes clock tower in Lawrence, French said.  

The red-tailed hawk, meanwhile, can be found on the side of the highway and also in cities, nesting on fire escapes and ledges.

While their natural habitat has decreased, falcons and hawks have adapted.

“Red tails are more sanguine about humankind, so don’t get scared off as easily,” Larson said. “They’re basically open-country hunters, so you would think that with the increase in forested areas in Massachusetts [over hundreds of years] they would be declining, but in fact they’re quite adaptable and can handle edge habitat and relatively smaller open areas.”

Larson noted that at one point last weekend, there were five eagles flying over the Joppa Flats Education Center, on the Plum Island Turnpike.

The increase in raptors, and the chance of seeing some, has sparked interest among the center’s visitors beyond just devoted birders.

“Absolutely,” Larson said. “People get excited about all of the raptors. They’re charismatic.”

David Rattigan may be reached at DRattigan.Globe@gmail.com.

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