Eagle Islands

 By: Gregory James
It was a clear, warm summer afternoon on Lake Chaubunagungamaug in Webster, Massachusetts. We were anchored in a quiet cove, playing a lively game of cribbage when I spotted a pair of eagles soaring high above us. It was as if they were playing a game of tag. Then suddenly one of the eagles headed straight down into the water and came back up with a big fish in its beak. He flew to a tall bushy pine tree nearby to enjoy his fresh catch.

These are the special lake moments that many of us have come to look forward to in summer. Each spring at least one pair of bald eagles return to nest here, on one of the lake's many small islands. Webster Lake, the other more speaker friendly name, is located near the corners of Connecticut and Rhode Island and has a surface area of 1,442 acres. The lake's original name comes from Nipmuc, an Algonquian language and is frequently said to mean 'You fish on your side, I fish on my side and no one fish in the middle'. Another translation according to anthropologist Ives Goddard, is 'lake divided by islands'. Given the size of Webster Lake, locals refer to it's three connected bodies of water as North, Middle and South ponds.

Webster Lake also goes by an even longer, 45-letter alternative name, 'Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg' that was thought to be coined around 1921. It is frequently cited as the longest place name in the United States and one of the longest in the world! Many of our long-time resident neighbors are proud to roll the exaggerated name off of their tongues with ease and finesse. I am still working on it.

Today there are an estimated 7,066 nesting pairs of bald eagles, according to US wildlife experts. An eagle can live up to 30 years in the wild, with many decades to produce offspring. Their nests or aerie, are found high in large, strong trees near rivers, coasts or on lakes. The nest shape can be cylindrical, disk, bowl or inverted cone depending on which branch point it's built. Typically, the nest is about five feet in diameter. A nesting pair often return to use the same nest year after year. When doing so, they tend to reinforce the nest structure, as strong winds or storms often take a toll. As you can imagine, over time the nest can get as large as nine feet in diameter, weighing nearly two tons! Eagles have also been known to build a second nest nearby if they feel threatened. On Webster Lake our pair have a massive nest on a single residence island in South Pond and another smaller (newer) nest on an island in Middle Pond.

Eagles lay one to three speckled, off-white colored eggs about goose egg size, one day at a time. In our New England area egg laying starts in late March. Then it takes 35 days of incubation duties shared by both parents. The female spends the most time on the nest, not only keeping the eggs warm, but to protect from intruders such as squirrels, ravens and gulls who will eat the eggs. Interestingly, the male habitually brings green sprigs of fresh conifer branches to the nest during the incubation period. To date experts have not determined why, other than to possibly deodorize the nest or provide shade for the eaglets. The cycle from the time parents build the nest to when the young are on their own is about 20 weeks. The parents remain within one to two miles of their nest during this cycle.

Human disturbance can have a negative impact on the bald eagle, as most require privacy and quiet to breed and raise their young. The Webster Lake Association (WLA) has a home webcam on the nest of our local pair. From the comfort of his home, a WLA member watches and regularly reports the eagle's many activities in a newsletter. Those of us out on the water in our boats and kayaks enjoy spotting the eagles and letting the WLA know of their whereabouts. We even have a fun contest each spring to name the new eaglet(s), with Independence, George and Martha and Liberty being a few of the most recent winners. Last spring one of our eaglets was injured during the banding process. The year before one of the young fell out of the nest and had to be rescued. Both eaglets survived, however last summer our nesting adult pair left their large, original nest and were repeatedly spotted in Middle Pond by their smaller nest, likely a result of these traumatic experiences. It is predicted they will relocate there to safely raise their young next spring. We shall see.
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