Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 25, 2009

In the Presence of Eagles

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:31 pm

Numbers don’t mean much by themselves. They don’t breath, cavort, fly, or dive into the water. When combined with living things they do begin to shed their sterility and begin to breathe. So, when I say that there were at least 216 Bald Eagles counted along the Michigan portion of the Lake Erie shore during the recent Christmas Bird Count, these particular numbers have the potential to jump off the screen and shout “Hallelujah!”

Yes, you read correctly. From the state line up to the Detroit River mouth the combined totals of the Rockwood and Monroe Audubon bird counts tallied over 200 individual eagles. Not so terribly long ago, one eagle could be considered a life sighting in S.E. Michigan. The effects of DDT and other chemicals having sucked the lifeblood from the once thriving local population, the bird was all but extinct except in the northern portions of the state.  Today the eagle is not only back, but continuing on a population rebound across the Great Lakes country. Take a look here at this photo (see here) taken by birder/photographer Jerry Jourdan showing 43 eagles off the Monroe County shore and you’ll get the idea. Hallelujah!

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these numbers – these breathing, cavorting, and diving numbers – is that these are winter birds.  The spring/summer breeders and migratory numbers are certainly respectable, but winter is the best time to view our neighborhood eagles. Like Canvasbacks and Tundra Swans, Bald Eagle numbers peak during the cold season. Like the before mentioned waterfowl, these birds of prey gather here along the waters of the Detroit River and Lake Erie to partake in the abundance of food. Unfortunately for the waterfowl they, along with the fish life,  are the object of the eagle’s partaking.  Lots of duck and fish will die within the clutches of  a set of talons, but we are richer for it.

Our wintering population is not only phenomenal but it is also accessible.  You can see the birds along many waterside areas, but one of the easiest viewing opportunities is offered at Lake Erie Metropark. By driving the Cove Point Picnic area you can watch the birds from your car window.  I say to you, therefore, ” get thee down to the Erie shore to see eagles.”  I say also that you will be in the presence of eagles sooner rather than later.

The best conditions are present when there is a significant ice shelf along the water. This situation concentrates the waterfowl and the eagles. Not a day has passed since mid-December without a half a dozen or more eagles perching out on the shelf ice along the open leads of water at Lake Metropark. Most of the birds are quite far out  and they look for all the world like patient ice fishermen. On an icy morning, they will stand there like evenly spaced sentinels -the wavering cold air issuing from the river ice creating a quivering mirage that appears to make them shift about. One will occasionally jump up into the air and shift position or plunge into the water after prey.

This morning, I watched as five eagles cavorted (see, there’s that word again) about a half mile out on the ice.  They would engage in short circling flights and replace each other’s position like a living version of the recycling logo. The background scene to this dance was the shimmering far shore of Canada and the looming red spectre of a Canadian Coast Guard Cutter breaking ice in the Amherstburg Channel. The cold mirage made the northbound cutter look like it was hovering just above the ice. Between the shore and the eagle activity, thousands of Canvasback ducks bobbed like white corks and filled nearly every inch of the open water space.

In all, the setting surrounding the winter eagles is somewhat unreal. The birds do come in to shore from time to time for closer inspection. Most of the birds are immature and lack the white head and tail of the five-year old plus birds. They are dark brown with random white streaking like the bird I photographed above.

Remnants of dis-articulated ducks and fish remains are in evidence under some of the shoreline trees. For the most part, however, the eagle sign can only be found out on the ice. I spied one of the eagle landing spots on the frozen shelf and ventured eastward from shore to take a look (see here). At this spot you could plainly see the feather marks and a central spot where the bird finished off what looked to be a fish. It was hard to tell exactly what the prey was because there were no identifiable pieces left. Not too far from this landing point was another much clearer set of foot prints (see below).  Here the bird performed a two-point landing, sauntered about six feet, shuffled a bit, and then took off.

A detailed look at one of the prints (see here) provides a rare view of a very transitory thing.  Here, it can be said, is where the “Eagle has landed”. Eagles don’t make tracks too often because they don’t come to earth too often. When the Eagle spacecraft landed at Tranquility Base in the Sea of Clouds three decade ago, it left tracks that will mark the moon dust for thousands of years to come. This track, photographed only a few days ago, was erased by shifting ice in only a few days time.  It’s spot has been taken up by a new patch of snowy ice and awaits yet another landing. The good news is that there are now plenty of eagles around to make that landing.

1 Comment »

  1. I have a question about animal tracks. At work, deer pass on by. I can recognize their tracks. But there are also several large “depressions” in the snow, near the tracks, that look to my untrained eye like imprints of deer having sat down. The thing is, deer don’t seem like they’re sleeping near our building and the street. Do you know what I’m talking about? i can get a photo if that will help… except it is supposed to snow overnight…

    Comment by Monica — January 27, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

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