On the lookout: Audubon Society volunteers take part in annual midwinter bird-watching survey

  • Lynn Bardusk of Sanbornton looks through her binoculars for eagles at the Pemigewasset River in Franklin Thursday. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Lynn Bardusk of Sanbornton scans tree branches for signs of bald eagles along River Street in Franklin Thursday. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Dawn Stavros and her daughter, Lynn Bardusk, look over their eagle count paperwork Thursday morning. The two women spent more than an hour along Franklin's waterways before heading north for the annual mid-winter survey performed by New Hampshire Audubon Society volunteers. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • On the day they do a mid-winter survey of eagles in New Hampshire, Lynn Bardusk and Dawn Stavros keep a binder to record conditions, birds and eagle sightings. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • A bald eagle perches on a tree branch on the old Governor Blood farm on Mountain Road in January 2016.(GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

  • This bald eagle was photographed within the past month on the Merrimack River by one of the Midwinter Eagle Survey volunteers, Debbie LaValley.   Photo courtesy of Debbie LaValley—

  • A bald eagle takes off from a tree near Mountain Road in Concord last winter. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • These mature and juvenile bald eagles were photographed within the past month on the Merrimack River by Midwinter Eagle Survey volunteer Debbie LaValley.   Photo courtesy of Debbie LaValley

  • Bald eagles perch in Hinsdale, N.H. in this photo taken several years ago. Courtesy Pamela Hunt

  • Ken Noyes, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services chief operator of the Winnepesaukee River Basin Program, describes seeing bald eagles near the Franklin Wastewater Treatment plant Thursday. Elodie Reed / Monitor staff

  • Ken Noyes of NHDES holds out a photo depicting Nashua River half a century ago, before the Clean Water Act. Environmental regulations have contributed to the preservation of wildlife like bald eagles. Their numbers in New Hampshire have climbed from the single digits to around 90 in recent decades. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Dawn Stavros of Canterbury (left) and her daughter Lynn Bardusk (right) scout out eagles at the Franklin Wastewater Treatment plant along the Merrimack River on Thursday as part of the New Hampshire Audubon Society’s annual midwinter survey. Elodie Reed / Monitor staff

  • Dawn Stavros and her daughter, Lynn Bardusk, walk to the Merrimack River at the edge of the Franklin Wastewater Treatment plant Thursday. The pair went looking for eagles throughout the Lakes Region as part of the New Hampshire Audubon Society's annual mid-winter survey. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Lynn Bardusk of Sanbornton and Dawn Stavros of Canterbury stand for a portrait in Franklin Thursday. The mother-daughter pair have been birding together ever since Bardusk was a child. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Dawn Stavros of Canterbury looks through her binoculars to try and spot an eagle in Franklin Thursday. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

  • Dawn Stavros of Canterbury puts on some crampons to navigate icy roads in Franklin Thursday. She and other New Hampshire Audubon Society volunteers conducted a mid-winter survey of eagles. Elodie Reed—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Friday, January 13, 2017

As the fog rose over frozen Webster Lake in Franklin, Dawn Stavros of Canterbury and Lynn Bardusk of Sanbornton stepped out of their minivan and peered through their binoculars for signs of a bald eagle.

The mother-and-daughter team was on the lookout for something – anything – that could tell them if a large bird was nearby. Their eyes scanned for movement around the scattered bob houses on the lake or open patches of water. Their ears pricked for sounds of smaller birds chirping or ducks quacking.

“When things are flying, you really pay attention,” Stavros said. “You follow the water.”

They were part of a larger team of New Hampshire Audubon Society volunteers out in force Thursday, combing areas near the state’s rivers, lakes and ponds to count bald eagles for the annual midwinter survey.

Teams of dedicated bird-watchers were doing the same thing all over the country – scanning the skies and reporting back the numbers of eagles they saw.

After suffering under decades of pollution reversed by the Clean Air and Water Acts in the 1970s, New Hampshire’s bald eagle population has surged.

“The population has really recovered from something caused by DDT,” said Chris Martin, senior biologist with New Hampshire. “You see this chart that’s climbing from one year to the next. It’s pretty dramatic.”

About 90 bald eagles nest in New Hampshire, a significant climb from the 1980s and 1990s. At the population’s lowest point in the late 1980s, the number was in the single digits.

Stavros has been here the entire time to see it happen.

She was the original survey volunteer, going out solo to count eagles starting in 1979 – one year before the Audubon Society began doing its official count.

Even though her eyesight is not exactly what it used to be, Stavros still has a knack for spotting birds and nests from far away.

“She’s known for her ability to bird-watch and drive,” Bardusk laughed, as Stavros brushed the praise aside.

She was keeping her eyes on the road Thursday as her daughter kept a watchful eye on their surroundings, with binoculars around her neck.

Winter birders often look for bald eagles around open water – they are known to hunt for fish in rivers and lakes. One of Stavros and Bardusk’s favorite spots to check is the shoreline around the Franklin Wastewater Treatment plant, which sits on the Winnipesaukee River.

The plant staff and New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services keep an eye out for the big birds and report back to the mother and daughter. These days, eagles aren’t difficult to spot.

“We know when they’re coming down the river because the ducks go flying by,” said Ken Noyes, New Hampshire DES chief operator at the Winnipesaukee River Basin Program. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, another eagle.’ ”

It didn’t used to be so common to see wildlife around the water. Noyes still keeps pictures of what New Hampshire’s polluted rivers used to look like. Back when the wool mills and textile industries were still operating, chemical dyes were dumped right into the rivers, along with sewage from cities and towns.

It was too toxic to swim, too toxic to fish and too toxic for birds, fish and other wildlife to thrive. Clean water laws helped turn it around.

“We see them so often now,” Noyes said of the eagles.

Other birding opportunities abound

The bald eagle survey takes a team of experienced volunteers and is not so much for the casual birdwatcher, but there are plenty of other things for birders of all ages and levels to do.

In addition to regular events to learn about the state’s wildlife, New Hampshire Audubon will conduct its annual backyard winter bird survey Feb. 11 and 12. All it takes to participate is a couple hours of free time on the weekend and a pen and paper to jot down your findings.

“Anybody can take part,” said Becky Suomala, a biologist with New Hampshire Audubon and the coordinator for the annual backyard survey. “It’s a great event for everyone to look out for.”

Generally, backyard bird-watchers count around 70 different species of winter birds – the species that migrate south from Canada to escape the cold and find more food.

“It’s always interesting to see what people are finding,” Suomala said. “We’re sunny vacation land for some of the northern species.”

The species can vary from year to year, including ruby-crowned kinglets, common redpolls and varied thrushes. Barred owls can also be spotted more frequently around feeders in the winter, as they hunt for smaller animals who are eating seeds.

Last winter, someone reported seeing a green-winged teal, which is a kind of duck, at a feeder.

“It’s not the type of bird you usually see coming to your feeder,” Suomala said. “Everybody obviously gets excited about it; it’s pretty thrilling when you’ve been watching your feeders for a while and you get something new in your yard.”

The eagle watchers say they still get the same sense of excitement when they see a bald eagle, even though they’re seasoned Audubon volunteers.

“They’re so big,” Bardusk said. “Every year, I just get awestruck.”

People looking for more information on New Hampshire Audubon’s backyard winter bird survey can visit nhbirdrecords.org/bird-conservation/bwbs/backyard-winter-bird-survey.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)