SABATTUS — On an absolutely frigid day, the view of Sabattus Pond can look like any other Maine pond – frozen and desolate.
But on a more pleasant winter day, the parking lot at the town park is packed. Sabattus Pond becomes a very special place in winter – because of the aerial show.
The 1,960-acre pond is the hunting territory of bald eagles – 20 by some counts. In winter, the lake amounts to a banquet table of northern pike, thrown onto the ice by fishermen.
Because northern pike are an invasive species, state biologists ask fishermen not to throw them back into the water. So the fish cast aside by anglers makes for an easy meal for bald eagles and other birds.
In waters where northern pike are plentiful – like the shallow Sabattus Pond – there generally are fishermen in pursuit of them, and often bald eagles are not far behind.
“It has been a common practice to throw out fish and have eagles come in, even before the eagle population rebounded,” said Maine raptor specialist Erynn Call. “And generally it’s not a concern for the eagles. Fishermen take care not to leave hooks and tackle on the ice. (Wildlife rehabilitators) don’t see an issue related to this.”
Maine possesses the largest bald eagle population in the Northeast with an estimated 900 nesting pairs, Call said. That’s up from 30 in the 1970s.
“They’ve made a tremendous comeback,” he said. “And there is no reason to think that won’t continue. There’s plenty of habitat here.”
Maine ice fishermen have the good fortune of often seeing these enormous birds up close and personal.
“I was at Sebago Lake bright and early this morning,” said Maine Game Warden Dave Chabot on Tuesday. “And there were three eagles sitting on the ice waiting for us to leave so they could come and check to see if we left any fish behind. They were all standing 100 feet apart just a couple hundred feet away. It is really, really neat. They do come in close. They’re aware that fishermen are not a threat to them.”
Chabot, who patrols Androscoggin County, said eagles foraging on the ice is common in his region – and Sabattus Pond is a hot spot.
“Maine is a stronghold for them,” Chabot said. “If you’re a bird watcher or naturalist and want to see eagles, really winter time is the time to go do so. You can get up close and personal.
“Just about every single day you go by Sabattus, there is someone fishing. There is definitely an abundance of fishermen who provide for the eagles.”
Ice fisherman Eric Miner of Sabattus is one of them.
“It’s extremely common to throw a pike on the lake because it’s a junk fish, and then see eagles,” Miner said. “The eagles know it’s the place.”
Miner frequently sees fishermen feed the eagles. He’s done it himself. He’s sat next to his traps with bald eagles just 30 to 40 yards away.
At that distance, he said the sheer size and power of this bird with the 6-foot wing span is impressive.
Miner even has seen eagles early in the morning pecking at frozen pike left from the day before, trying to eat what he calls, the “frozen fishsicle.”
Every time he has a close encounter, he’s in awe.
“You really get a sense of its size when it’s standing next to a fish,” Miner said. “It is a very big bird. I’ve seen eagles fly away with a pike that is more than 20 inches long. A fish that size is pushing 4 to 5 pounds. That’s a lot of weight to pick up and fly off with.”
The next town over in Monmouth, Shawn Norton at Jack Traps agreed it’s common in winter to see bald eagles looking for a handout.
The fishing store manager said the northern pike waters of the region amount to a grocery store for the birds, with everything on discount.
“Anywhere fish are on the ice, the eagles will find them,” Norton said. “People also throw out pickerel and pike. The eagles are always there waiting. You might see five to six in the trees. But it goes hand-in-hand with pike fishing, because people throw their pike on the lake, the state (biologists) want you to get rid of them.”
Stan DeOrsey of the Stanton Bird Club, founded in Lewiston in 1919, said Sabattus Pond is not the club’s go-to place to see bald eagles. That would be the Androscoggin River. But Sabattus Pond is definitely a good bet to see the birds in the winter, DeOrsey said.
“I do not know where the nest is, but you see them at both ends and you can see them in the air often,” he said.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: