Friday, November 04, 2005

the return of the bald eagle

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported this week that the number of nesting pairs of bald eagles in the state has increased by 28 percent from the year 2000, with a total of 872 pairs found in a spring 2005 survey. Full story By comparison, the estimated total number of nesting pairs in the entire lower 48 United States in 1963 was 417.

I have been privileged to be a witness to this dramatic comeback. The year I was born, 1967, was the year the bald eagle was placed on the federal endangered species list. I grew up as most children did at the time, seeing images of bald eagles everywhere as the symbol of our country but never having seen a real, live eagle. I was nearly twenty years old before I saw my first bald eagles in the wild, along the Mississippi River near Wabasha, MN. I was instantly in awe of their enormous wingspan, and the beauty of their soaring flight. Majestic is not too strong a word to use when describing this bird.

I started seeing bald eagles more often in the early 1990's. My job in fisheries management took me to lakes and rivers in east central Minnesota, in prime bald eagle habitat. I lived near a large wildlife management area where eagles often fished in the shallow impoundments of the Sunrise River. I had one dead tree I called the "Eagle Tree" because, whenever I drove by it, more likely than not I would see an eagle perched in its branches. Still, I considered a bald eagle to be a rare treat to encounter. One Thanksgiving day, in the mid 1990's, the family was gathered at my grandma's home on Rush Lake. That day I counted over seventy eagles sitting on islands of ice and in the branches of trees on Heron Island, a great blue heron rookery. I had been spending nearly every Thanksgiving there since 1975, and had never seen such a spectacle.

Today where I live, eagles are a common if not daily sight. This time of year I suspect a lot of them are migrating through, following the streams and rivers of the St. Croix watershed. I have seen bald eagles throughout the winter, however, so they are not all migrants. I do not know where the nearest active eagle nest is to Sand Creek, but I would like to find out. I do know of nest locations in other areas; one eagle nest on Chisago Lake has been there for at least ten years and is considered a point of reference for anglers on the lake; often you hear of fish biting "by the eagle's nest".

Fortunately people seem to have a bit more respect and tolerance for bald eagles than in the past, and more so than for birds of prey such as great gray owls. I have heard hardly any reports of people deliberately killing bald eagles around here. On a couple of occasions I have had bald eagles eyeing my chickens, but with their large wingspans it would be unlikely that an eagle could maneuver into and take off from the enclosed chicken yard with a Rhode Island Red in its talons. Eagles around here seem to prefer carrion such as road killed deer, of which there is a steady supply. This situation sometimes puts eagles in danger of becoming road kill themselves; eagles take a long time to get airborne after takeoff, and if a carcass is close to the road the eagle sometimes must fly in the path of cars. I once passed about six feet under a flying eagle in my Honda Accord. The wing span was wider than the car.

I don't know exactly what it is about bald eagles, or how to describe the feeling of awe I get every time I see one. I often utter the much overused adjective "Cool!", but that does not seem to do it justice. Perhaps there are no words that do.


R.Powers said...

When the restoration began, many of the reintroduced birds came from FL and AK as we still had large pops.

I'm with you, I see them all the time now and majestic is what they are. If you can look majestic eating a road killed armadillo, then you truly are majestic. They manage to pull this off somehow.

One very lucky day, I got to see a Bald Eagle do an airborne mugging of an osprey with a huge mullet in it's talons. The osprey dropped the fish, the eagle swooped it in mid air...

robin andrea said...

I saw my first bald eagle this year! They are as awesome and awe-inspiring as you describe. I keep wondering if my delight at just glimpsing one will lessen, and am so glad to read that yours hasn't after all this time.
I have been very fortunate to photograph several eagles over the past few months. A close-up of their eyes is about as stunning and compelling thing as I've ever seen.
Your description here definitely conveys their majesty. Such beauty.

Lené Gary said...

I can't imagine seeing the number you describe at that rookery. Wow! I saw my first bald eagle on Whidbey Island, WA two years ago.

While I was dashing to windows to see them, locals were complaining about how they hated eagles because they eat Poodles.

Deb said...

FC-that's why Ben Franklin was opposed to having the eagle as the symbol of the nation; he said they earn their living by dishonest means, stealing from others instead of hunting their own food. Typical of the anthropomorphism of creatures by people! I say, whatever works...That must have been an awesome sight.

I guess I take for granted the numbers of bald eagles I am fortunate to see here, although every one is still an awesome sight.

Madcap said...

Pardon me for saying so, but any bird that curbs the poodle population definitely gets my personal seal of approval.

We even get a few bald eagles up this way, not lots but the occasional rover. I'm always startled when I see one roosting in a snag.

Dave Dorsey said...

Nice post Deb. I agree with you. I work with eagles almost everyday and I'm in awe about it all the time. Unfortunatly we do have people still stupid enough to harm these gorgous birds. They will get their day though.

Anonymous said...

wonderful post- we enjoy Bald Eagles year round and the occasional Golden. I never tire of them either nor take them for granted. Such magestic birds.
You have a wonderful blog, I'll have to try and find time to visit again soon- so many blogs, so little time :)

Deb said...

cindy m.-"So many blogs, so little time." Ain't that the truth!

dave-thanks for stopping by and commenting. I see from your blog you have regular experience with these magnificent creatures, but unfortunately you also see what happens when they are less appreciated.

I just read a story today about how a conservation officer was called to help with a bald eagle stuck in a tree. It turns out the eagle had somehow gotten caught in a trap, and must have flown up into the tree with the trap and gotten tangled. They ended up shooting off the tree branch until if fell, catching the eagle, and bringing it to a wildlife rehab center. I hope the eagle makes a full recovery!