For bald eagles, it’s homecoming weekend

A bald eagle near the Merrimack River in Newburyport.
A bald eagle near the Merrimack River in Newburyport.Bill McAdams

The bald eagle, America’s national bird, is especially striking to see in its natural habitat — which, in midwinter, just so happens to be north of Boston.

The 10th annual Mass Audubon’s Merrimack River Eagle Festival, sponsored by Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center and the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, takes flight in Newburyport on Feb. 18. The daylong event is eagle-centric with indoor and outdoor activities and guided eagle tours, and is appealing to those with little bird watching experience, as well as experienced birders.

“Joppa Flats Education Center is one of 20 staffed centers or sanctuaries of Mass Audubon,” says David Moon, sanctuary director at Joppa Flats Education Center. “We specialize in adult programming centered on bird watching, as we are in the best place in the state to see birds.”


New this year, the festival will include a photography-focused van tour, led by instructor Rick Berk of Hunt’s Photo & Video. Berk will “help folks with in-field photo tips while we lead them to the local wildlife,” says Melissa Vokey, development director and administrative manager at Joppa Flats Education Center. Also new to the festival this year: Raptor demos will be led by Mary-Beth Kaeser of Horizon Wings, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center located in Ashford, Conn.

Eagles typically migrate to the Newburyport area by February, says Vokey, and the area is already home to two pairs of year-round nesting eagles. Eagle viewing sites will be on both the Newburyport and the Amesbury sides of the Merrimack River, with Lowell’s Boat Shop operating as the festival’s Amesbury headquarters.

“Eagles don’t care much about snow, but they do care about a source of food, and since they’re big fish eaters, they need open water,” says Vokey. “In February, they usually like to hang out here around the lower Merrimack, because when other local waters freeze up, the Merrimack River stays open around the Chain Bridge. I don’t think there’s been one Eagle Fest when we haven’t had an eagle or two floating by Joppa Flats on an ice floe around 4 p.m. I have no idea how that happens!”


Although bald eagles are the sought-out celebrities, the festival isn’t all about eagles. “It’s a great time for buffleheads, and mergansers, and other really charming waterfowl,” says Vokey. “The ooh-ah factor is definitely there!”

The festival is family-friendly — not only are there activities geared toward families, but the festival is held on President’s Day Weekend, and kicking off vacation week for many school kids.

“Kids love bird demonstrations, and we’ve got them for all ages,” says Vokey. For kids 6 and younger, the demonstrations at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, as well as at Joppa Flats Education Center, are held in intimate-size rooms and offer flexibility — you can drop in for a short while or stay as long as you like. The demonstrations that are held at Newburyport City Hall, on the other hand, are for large audiences and last about an hour. “You need to be able to sit still, have patience, so we recommend them for ages 6 and up,” says Vokey.

For more information about the festival, visit www.mass

If you go . . .

Here are some convenient spots to grab a good meal, and suggestions for where to spend the night.

Middle Street Café: A local favorite, this friendly café in downtown Newburyport will celebrate the festival with the special Big Year sandwich — tuna salad (capers, red onion, lemon vinaigrette with baby spinach) on homemade focaccia bread. For early birds, the café opens at 7 for breakfast. www.middlestreetfoods.com


Plum Island Coffee Roasters: Grab a coffee, latte, or tea at this casual, accommodating coffee house with close-up shots of the Merrimack River. A fireplace makes it a winter charmer for coffee and conversation. www.plumisland

The Park Lunch: Grab a booth or a seat at the bar at this sports-fan-favorite neighborhood restaurant just outside downtown Newburyport — the fried clams are a specialty. www.parklunch.com

The Black Cow: Keep the river theme flowing at this restaurant with a prime Merrimack River location — warm up by the fire with a cup of chowder and a burger. www.blackcowrestaurants.com

The Grog: This Newburyport tavern and restaurant (sandwiches, salads, pasta,
and seafood) is on the radar every year during the festival. There are also live local and regional bands at night. www.thegrog.com

Plum Island Beachcoma: Locals love this beachy restaurant thanks to its casual menu (burgers, pizza, salads), neighborhood vibe and, for festival-goers, it’s walkable to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge as well as the Atlantic Ocean for a beach stroll. www.pibeachcoma.com

Plum Island Provisions: A seashell toss to the beach and walkable to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge — if you want seafood boxes (scallops, clams), hot and cold subs, and creative pizza pies, you can get them here to go.www.plum


Blue, Inn on the Beach You’ll have the best of both worlds at hip, beachfront Blue. Many of the inn’s striking suites and guestrooms have stunning ocean views, and Blue is also within walking distance of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. www.blueinn.com

Essex Street Inn and Suites This unpretentious, historic, 37-room inn is located in downtown Newburyport, a quick drive to all the eagle action. www.essexstreetinn.com

Laurie Wilson can be reahced at laurieheather@yahoo.com.