Active Seniors: Becoming Eagle Scouts On Prince Edward Island

Edie hiking to eagle viewing spot (Warner Shedd photo)

No, we aren’t entering our second childhood, nor do we expect you to start working on Boy Scout merit badges! We’re talking about the real thing – looking for those magnificent birds that are our national symbol. If you’ve ever seen a bald eagle in person, you know it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

So it was during a vacation to Prince Edward Island (PEI) in June that we went looking for bald eagles and adventures for seniors. We discovered that there would be plenty of both on PEI, which is decribed as a magical place by everyone we know who has been there.  Yes, we’re aware that we headed to another country to see our national bird, but they’re allowed to take vacations in Canada as much as we are!

We left the mainland and crossed the eight-mile-long Confederation Bridge one morning, driving over what is considered one of Canada’s great engineering and construction feats.  It’s almost worth the trip just to cross it; it’s truly impressive!  Then we turned northeast in order to visit The Cheese Lady’s, where utterly delicious Gouda cheese is made (let’s face it, there’s no escaping good food when we go to Canada; it’s a trial, but we persevere). The Cheese Lady and her helpers sell many different Goudas, some flavored with various herbs and others aged for different lengths of time. We bought three different goudas to sample (splitting the cost between us so that it would be a true “Dutch treat”), and we can tell you it was money well spent!

Then we headed for Mount Stewart where, every year in June, bald eagles gather on Hillsborough Heritage River to feed on the annual run of alewives.  Apparently, it’s not just people (like us!) who “road trip” to Canada for the food.  For the record, alewives have nothing to do with either brewed beverages, spouses, or even spouses who have consumed brewed beverages. They’re a kind of fish, very abundant and, apparently, very tasty to eagles (which are a kind of fish hawk). The town, however, ignores the alewives and simply calls it an annual Bald Eagle Festival with events galore and opportunities to watch the eagles and learn about the Canadian Maritimes ancient cultures.

Because we are confirmed eagle scouts — they are one of our favorite excuses to go exploring — we drove past the Hillsborough River Eco-Centre in Mount Stewart, across a little bridge, and then parked just off a road named Pigot’s Trail that led through fields and along woods beside a lake.  Armed with binoculars and rain jackets, we hiked about a half mile on a wide and flat trail to an eagle observation area. The walking was easy and along the way we stopped to watch a highly trained Labrador retriever perform; it was fascinating to watch him respond to a variety of hand signals and voice commands — especially when he had to retrieve two widely spaced dummies (no, not us…REAL dummies). Then it was on to see the eagles.

Closeup of mature bald eagle. (Ellen Shedd photo)

Soon we came to a side trail, apparently without a name, that turned left and led out onto a long point. In our estimation, it was the best bald eagle observation spot because it juts farther out into the lake than the rest of the shoreline and provides almost a 270 degree view. When we reached the viewing area, we were very glad to have our rain jackets, for the wind was blowing a near gale, and the temperature was somewhere in the upper 40s!  Raingear does great double duty as a windbreaker, luckily for us. We didn’t mind, however, because we tolerate cold far better than hot weather and the wind kept the hordes of mosquitoes that normally infest the area at bay.  At the end of the point we met a man with a spotting scope, and he pointed out some of the regal birds that we might not have seen otherwise.  If you’ve got the extra funds and space in your backpack, a spotting scope can be a great addition to your binoculars; after this experience, we may look into one for ourselves!

We immediately began to see bald eagles, both mature, with their snowy white heads and tails, and the brown or mottled brown immatures. Rest assured, one does not have to be a dedicated birder to appreciate these magnificent creatures. Huge and impressive, they are a feast for the eyes! We hoped we’d see something spectacular, like watching them catching large fish and soaring away with them, but no such luck. Still, we got to watch two adult eagles sitting in the tall grass with a couple of immature eagles. The latter, judging by their solid brown color, were evidently fledglings testing their wings. Half-hidden in the tall grass, they would periodically flap their wings, fly up for a short distance, and then land again in the tall grass. Mom and dad eagle didn’t seem to be mightily impressed with the kids’ efforts, but they were fun for us to watch!

As a bonus, we saw quantities of great blue herons, which are almost as impressive as the eagles.   There’s something prehistoric about them…they almost look as if they could be flying dinosaurs with their long beaks and long legs trailing behind them. At one point we saw five of these great birds flying close together overhead like the Blue Angels! We ended up with a total of 12 spotted on this trip.

There were lots of smaller birds, too. We saw ruddy ducks, ringneck ducks, and flocks of red-winged blackbirds. We could also hear a variety of smaller birds in the alders along the trail and in the woods as we walked back out to the car. Unfortunately, our identification of bird calls is somewhat sketchy, and we could never see the birds, so they remained unidentified. Clearly, though, if you want to take the time, there are lots of birds to be seen; you may want to take a folding chair when you go so that you can relax, enjoy, and expand your life list!

Both mature and immature bald eagles. (Ellen Shedd photo)

Following this adventure, we stopped in St. Peters for lunch at Rick’s Fish and Chips. We were treated to a huge and absolutely delectable meal of the famous PEI mussels, raised at a mussel farm just across the highway from Rick’s. We can’t recommend these mussels highly enough; they’re a rare treat. On the other hand, forget the fried clams on PEI. While not the fault of  Rick’s (the batter was outstanding and the clams were perfectly cooked), visitors who spend a great deal of time on PEI confirmed that clams there are flavorless when compared to Maine clams. Stick with the mussels, and when you leave PEI, head south to Maine for  real fried clams!

Finally, it was on to our oceanside rental, happy with our eagle and heron sightings. We arrived in the mood for more adventures, which we knew we could find in abundance on Prince Edward Island. Our next adventure includes a trip to see the dunes in the Greenwich section of the PEI National Park. 

We should also mention the Confederation Trail, which follows an old railroad bed spanning PEI. There are side trail entrances to this trail, with two of them located in Mount Stewart.  The Confederation Trail offers many fine opportunities for both hiking and biking. A good source of information is the Visitor’s Guide, available at www.tourismpei.com or phone toll free at 1-800-463-4PEI.

If you go:
If you travel to PEI and go out to the prime eagle observation area, be sure to take a windbreaker and plenty of insect protection like a Thermacell, InsectShield clothing, or even a full mesh bug suit, as well as a high DEET insect repellent. If the wind is blowing hard, and the weather is cold, you’ll be glad of the windbreaker. If it’s still, or there’s only a light breeze, the bug protection is vital to ward off the hordes of fierce mosquitoes; without protection, the mosquitoes may carry you up and away until you find yourself flying with the eagles – until the skeeters have drained all your blood, that is!  Take some snacks and something to drink; if you find yourself surrounded by eagles, you won’t want to leave because of a growling stomach.

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About Edie & Warner Shedd