May 05. 2013 10:17PM

Bald eagle family takes up residence in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

An American bald eagle and one of its eaglets are nesting along the Merrimack River in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Senior Biologist Chris Martin of the New Hampshire Audubon Society uses a telescope to view an American bald eagle nest along the Merrimack River in Manchester on Friday. DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER 

An American bald and its eaglets are nesting along the Merrimack River in Manchester. DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER 

MANCHESTER - A secluded spot where only the hum of highway traffic is heard.

Easy access to food.

And a perch that offers a bird's eye view of the downtown.

Such is the home for two of the newest residents of the Queen City - a pair of baby American bald eagles that hatched early last month and are being raised in a nest along the Merrimack River.

The eaglets are the first to be born in Manchester in decades and represent the continuing success of the restoration of the bald eagle, said Christian Martin, a raptor biologist with the New Hampshire Audubon Society.

Martin brought a New Hampshire Union Leader reporter and photographer to a viewing area of the nest with the understanding it would not be pinpointed. Seclusion is needed to prevent distractions and human disturbances to the adults who are tending the eaglets, he said.

The nest is located about 90 feet up a white pine tree. During the visit Friday, one adult sat on the nest and glared at the human visitors, who spied the birds with binoculars and telephoto lenses about 500 feet from the nest.

Most of the time, the gray fuzz of the eaglets lay at the bottom of the nest, resembling little more than an accumulation of dust. But occasionally, a wing would poke out awkwardly. At other times, a long neck, more fitting for an ostrich, would stretch up, a beak at its crown.

"They look like fuzzy aliens," said Peter Gray, a Bedford resident and Audubon volunteer who first observed and photographed the eaglets on April 20.

"I definitely had goose bumps," Gray said. "I watched my two kids being born, and I didn't have the same feeling."

Gray disguises himself in camouflage and will sit motionless for an hour while observing the birds.

He has seen the hunting eagle bring fish to the nest, he said. He has seen the parent feed the young. He has seen the other adult circle and land on a protective perch nearby.

"Even the chicks know I'm there. They look right at me," he said.

Until two weeks ago, the pair was the only breeding pair on the Merrimack River in New Hampshire, Martin said. But last week, volunteers spotted a nest with eaglets in Nashua, he said.

The nests exemplify the mounting success of the Audubon Society's eagle restoration efforts in New Hampshire, an effort funded in part by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

Last year, volunteers counted 35 "territorial pairs" of bald eagles in the Granite State and 28 nests. That was a 30 percent increase from the previous year. A count for this year isn't complete, Martin said.

Bald eagles are not new to Manchester. They favor the open river for hunting and roosting during winter months. And on opening night for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats this year, an eagle flew over the right-field fence at Northeast Delta Dental stadium.

But establishing a nest took more than a decade of effort.

The first Manchester nest was detected in 2001, forcing transportation engineers to redraw the path for the Manchester airport access road, now known as Raymond Wieczorek Drive.

No eagles were ever born of that nest, which was eventually abandoned, Martin said. But as part of the road project, the state paid to have a man-made nest built on the tree the eagles now occupy. That was in 2006.

Three years later, eagles built their own nest about 5 feet higher, apparently pillaging the material from the man-made nest. Yet, no eagles occupied the nest until the spring of 2011, when a pair of adult eagles were spotted there.

The following winter, they were incubating eggs, but the pair abandoned the nest at hatch time. Then on April 20, Gray discovered the eaglets. Martin said they probably hatched about April 1.

Martin said the eaglets will probably make their first flights in early July. They will hang around the nest until late in the year, and by the winter they will drift away or be chased off.