An overlook near the summit of Morse Mountain offers a view of Sprague River Salt Marsh. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Walking in the wilderness with an old friend is one of the best medicines. And if you happen to see something incredible along the way, that’s just a bonus.

Last weekend, Mother Nature graced my friend Lauren and me with a few bonuses. In fact, at one point, we couldn’t believe our eyes.

The day couldn’t decide if it wanted to be gloomy or not. One moment the sun was fighting through the clouds, and the next, raindrops were sneaking under my baseball cap. But as we walked through a corridor of towering evergreens at Bates-Morse Mountain Conservation Area in Phippsburg, the fluctuating weather didn’t bother us one bit.

The 600-acre property is an excellent spot for wildlife watching. It’s also popular because it features one of the state’s largest sand beaches: Seawall Beach. An easy 2-mile walk on an old road ends at the beach, passing through a dense forest and wetlands along the way.

Our first wildlife sighting of the day was a great blue heron, which was busy spearing frogs with its sharp bill. Wading through grass, the tall bird moved slowly, blending in with its surroundings until it grabbed its prey with one sharp movement of its long graceful neck.

Lobster traps lie half-buried in sand on Seawall Beach on May 8, 2021, in Phippsburg. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

A short side trail veers off the property’s road to an overlook near the summit of Morse Mountain, which at about 200 feet above sea level is really more of a hill. The spot offers a birds-eye view of Sprague River as it twists and turns through a salt marsh on its way to the ocean. Lauren and I sat at the mountain overlook for a little while, talking about whatever popped into our minds.

As childhood friends, we have countless shared memories. If you drum up the right memories, laughter comes easy, even during challenging times. That’s the magic of old friends.

Plus, lucky for us, we share a lot of interests as adults. This helps us enjoy the present together, and look to the future. For example, she and I both love outdoor exploration and exercise. But I’m more of a nature nut. So during our walk, I eagerly assumed the role of interpretive guide — and tried not to cross the line into annoying.

Those large birds circling above the trees? Turkey vultures, I told her. You can tell because they’re about the size of a bald eagle, but their wingspan forms a V. I held out my arms in demonstration as we walked the vast sandy beach. “Eagles are more like this,” I said, lowering my arms so they formed a straight line rather than a V.

At a bend in the beach, we sat down in the dry sand above the high tide mark, our backs against a large, weathered piece of driftwood. As we ate our sandwiches (from Union Street Bakery in Brunswick — they were fantastic), I noticed movement in the sand a few yards in front of us. A piping plover! A tiny shorebird, piping plovers are listed as endangered in Maine, with a historic high of 200 pairs nesting in the state’s southern sand dunes in 2020.

A piping plover walks across the sandy Seawall Beach on May 8, 2021, in Phippsburg. Piping plovers are listed as endangered in Maine. They nest among fragile sand dunes. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Areas of the sand dunes are roped off as piping plover nesting areas on Seawall Beach and the neighboring Popham Beach, and are off limits to people.

Rest assured, Lauren and I were not inside one of those areas. Unsure what to do, we just sat there quietly and watched the tiny bird stroll on by.

Believe it or not, the endangered bird wasn’t the most surprising thing we saw that day. Rounding the bend, we continued our stroll on the smooth sandy expanse. Every once in a while I’d bend down to inspect a half buried mussel shell or broken bit of sand dollar.

“Is that an eagle?” Lauren asked, pointing out a bird soaring overhead. “Is that another one?”

Five bald eagles fly along the edge of Seawall Beach on May 8, 2021, in Phippsburg. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Yes and yes. But wait, there were more. To our left, several eagles flew over the nearby forest. To our right, they swooped over the waves along the shore. And several just stood there in the sand near the water’s edge. We counted at least a dozen bald eagles.

Sometimes eagles congregate over a food source, so we scanned the beach for a washed up sea creature or some other indication of what they might be eating. After all, last time I’d visited the beach, I’d come across a dead seal (a sad sight for sure). But we couldn’t figure it out. Maybe the eagles were just feasting on fish or waterbirds. Maybe a number of them were nesting nearby.

While bald eagles aren’t known to be particularly social birds, some non-breeding bald eagles do roost communally, sleeping together in one tree or a group of trees. Five of these communal roosts have been documented in Maine through the National Eagle Roost Registry.

Three bald eagles, two adults and one one juvenile, stand on Seawall Beach on May 8, 2021, in Phippsburg. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Whatever the reason for the gathering, it was a special experience for us to see so many of the majestic birds in one place. Once headed toward extinction, the bald eagle has made a major comeback in Maine in recent years, thanks to conservation efforts.

Some of the eagles on the beach were juvenile, with brown splotchy plumage and dark beaks. While others were full-blown adults, with pure white heads and bright yellow beaks. They wheeled through the air, walked on the smooth sand and dove at the waves, talons first. We just watched in awe, happy that we’d decided to go on a walk on a gloomy day.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...