Close Encounters ...
... of an Avian Kind
by M.L. Faunce
Eagles inhabit the heavenly heights
They know neither limit nor bound
They're guardian angels of darkness and light
They see all and hear every sound ...
-"Eagles and Horses" by John Denver
Snowballs in Our Trees
At right, proud and stately, the mature bald eagle. photo courtesy of Craig Koppie - U.S. Fish & Wildlife
If the pair of bald eagles trying out the tallest loblolly pine tree in my Churchton neighborhood stay to set up housekeeping, our community might be on the verge of a name change.
Tucked in between Franklin Manor and Cape Anne, our small settlement was named for the tundra swans that migrate to the Chesapeake region each winter to feed. Separated from the Bay by a hundred yards or so of rich wetlands, The Swans are used to the company of wildlife: stately herons, marauding racoons, lumbering turtles, raucous gulls, busy rabbits and a host of melodic song birds watched by keen-eyed hawks.
Just as the swans capture our attention each fall migration, these mature bald eagles have seized our imagination. Watching them has become the neighborhood pastime.
They don't look like fair-weather birds. Yet it's most often been on clear, crisp mornings that over the years I would catch sight of a bald eagle. Occasionally, a pair perched in a snag of a tree on Rockhold Creek.
We welcomed the big birds for many reasons. Bald eagles are truly American, unique to our continent alone. But most of all, we hail the eagle because of the attention it commands. The American bald eagle is of formidable size and beauty: males weigh in at seven to 10 pounds; females reach upward to 14 pounds. The wingspan is so significant - six to eight feet for male and female - that it conveys a mythical image. At maturity, around four to five years old, come the distinctive features we all recognize: white head and upper body feathers, broad white tail.
Flying at great heights, the eagle sees - some say hears - all, as it scouts for prey and nesting spots. To see it best, mere humans use binoculars. Observing the intensity of an eagle's eyes under this close scrutiny, you begin to understand the magnitude and power of the bird.
Peering through binoculars at startling pale eyes looking back at me in my own yard, I'm reminded of a trip I made a few years ago to a raptor rehab center in Sitka, Alaska. There, in the land of eagles, I saw birds that had suffered mishaps, perhaps tangling with a fishing net, being nursed back to health before release to the wild. Staff there had penned a caption to a particularly vivid photo of a rescued eagle. I am smiling, the bird in the photo insisted.
From this safe distance, this year I watch the passion and intensity of instinctive behavior.
Eagles Move in
Perched at the crook of a tall, top-heavy pine, with head and neck feathers ruffled ever so slightly, the eagle does seem to be smiling. But it's a startled, wary kind of smile that makes you think he knows the dangers of human interference. Even so, he has chosen our home for his. I am looking full into the face and eyes of the eagle sitting on a nest in the early stages of construction. Good day by good day, stick by stick the nest grows. Engineering takes time, and eagles sometimes build multiple nests.
Some days sticks rain down in my yard. Sticks 12 inches long, sticks four feet long, which the eagle harvests from carefully selected trees. The dead wood, snapped under the eagle's weight, is carried off in its thick talons to the nest. This nest-building activity is as basic as food: Both are the sustenance of life.
The eagles who see all and hear all began their occupation here by telling all. One morning a juvenile eagle - still mottled not yet having grown its distinctive markings - flew around the new nest in youthful exuberance. In their nest, sitting close together as if on a small throne, the pair squawked out a warning. Their high-pitched call sounded like a rusty gate closing: not a garden gate but a huge metallic stockyard gate, bumping and reverberating as it closed. Well warned, the juvenile retreated.
When and if completed, this nest will measure four to five feet across and rest only about 20 feet from the nearest house in this area of many houses, all keeping their close vigil on the eagles' progress.
Below, fuzze four-week eaglets. photo courtesy of Craig Koppie.
"This is serious business," said Glenn Therres, Department of Natural Resurces biologist and eagle expert.
"They're not just carrying sticks for the heck of it. There's only one purpose, and that's nesting." The next nearest eagles' nest is in West River, Therres said, with another pair farther south near the Calvert-Anne Arundel county line.
"We get excited," he adds, "when we hear about eagles building nests."
Nests are Therres' business. From a small, fixed wing plane, he conducts an annual March-through-May aerial survey of eagle nesting areas. The nests he's seeking, usually located in the upper-most crotch of the tree, are tabulated for the record. After flying to all known spots, Therres searches for new nests. This time, he's flying over Churchton, too.
Early in March, the Churchton couple began lining their nest with soft pine boughs they'd plucked from trees.
"If the eagles are putting in soft pine boughs," said Therres, "they're lining the nest. Basically then, they're done building and are getting ready to lay their eggs.
However, he added, "these might be young birds in their first year nesting and may be a little out of sync with typical habits." In other words, there's no telling what they're up to.
Once eggs are laid, they are incubated in about 35 days. So we shall see
Everyone has their binoculars trained on that tall loblolly pine, and the presence of the eagles seems to have us thinking about how we treat the habitat we now share as we wait for nature to take its course.
Whatever the outcome this year, we know there will be next year. In Bay country we have all the breeding habitat eagles like: wetlands and open water and a great big sky to circle in the drafts of air.
We may not decide to change the name of our neighborhood from The Swans to Eagles Nest. But as the nesting instinct rises and spring tides ebb, we celebrate this major comeback of America's symbol of freedom - the bald eagle - right in our own backyard.
When Warren Heising of Churchton stepped out of his house one recent morning, his thoughts were focused about knee high - getting his two young children off to daycare. But when a large tree branch fell from the sky to the ground nearby, Heising caught a surprised glimpse of the culprit: a bald eagle soaring overhead. The eagle was carrying sticks to a nest a nest it was building in a tree in the yard next to his.
Increasingly, Bay country is eagle country, and close encounters with our national bird are no longer uncommon. Dwellers along Bay, creeks and rivers are often entertained with the sight of eagles perching in tall trees or cruising the shoreline in their hunt for food.
"Chesapeake Bay eagles have a tolerance for people, maybe even more than other eagles," says Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Glenn Therres.
While wildlife enthusiasts and bird lovers couldn't be happier about sharing Chesapeake Country with eagles, the eagles may not have much of a choice. The steadily expanding population of eagles over the last 10 years may mean that optimal nesting sites are becoming more limited. In fact, habitat loss may be our eagles' biggest problem.
Today, the bald eagle is more threatened than endangered, thanks to the apostolate of Rachel Carson, whose poignant book, Silent Spring, alerted Americans to the devastating effects of pesticides like DDT, helping to bring about its ban in the 1970s.
Thirty years ago, only about 40 nesting pairs were known in Maryland. In 1997, 219 nesting pairs were counted in our state, and they hatched more than 280 young. There are probably another 300 or 400 eagles not yet of breeding age. When eagles from northern states like Maine converge here in winter, the population can soar to 1,000 or 1,500.
Eagles have about reached their sustainable population in Chesapeake Country, according to Craig Koppie, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Office in Annapolis. Koppie has probably had more up-close and personal experience with eagles than just about anyone else around, having climbed into over 60 nests to band four-month-old chicks during a 10-year study of eagles by the federal government to monitor nest productivity.
How does the fierce-looking raptor appear at the tender age of four weeks? "Quite cute," Koppie reports. "The chicks have fluffy gray down, but they're all feet and head, and both look bigger than the body." But watch out: by eight or nine weeks, these eaglets are as large as adults.
"It has been extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally to watch the progress," says Koppie, who also takes a picture record of the eagles he works with. "When I started some 20 years ago, it was not a common thing to see eagles. Now crossing the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia, I can see an eagle a day," Still, the biologist says, "we're at a cross roads. The conflicts are frequent, contact is increasing, and so is development."
Glenn Therres, DNR's eagle man, has also seen increasing conflicts. Monitoring and recording nesting sites by aerial survey, he sees how human terrain and eagle domain intermingle. To resolve conflict, he works with county and state planning jurisdictions, including developers. In areas not already zoned, DNR can help establish buffers to protect the eagles.
An adult bald eagle, still too young to have frown the tell-tale white head feathers, below. photo courtesy of Craig Koppe
Last fall, an eagle encounter in Annapolis pointed out the unexpected challenges posed when wildlife and humans become close neighbors. Stephen Reed, a ranger at Quiet Waters Park, took an early morning phone call from neighbors living just outside the park in Bay Ridge. Kendel and Marta Taut had awakened that rainy Sunday morning in October to find two mature bald eagles down and distressed in their backyard.
"One bird's talons were sunk into the side of the other bird, and the talons would stay attached as long as the other bird kept pressure on or struggled," Reed told New Bay Times.
The birds, possibly fighting over food or territory, might have become attached in the air before falling into the Taut's backyard, Reed speculated. When he arrived on the scene, the eagles appeared to be suffering from exhaustion and shock.
They needed to be separated, quickly - but help wasn't quickly available.
Department of Natural Resources - where Reed was challenged as to whether he could tell eagles from osprey - had no wildlife officer on duty over the weekend. Noah's Ark, a wildlife shelter in Pasadena, was likewise short staffed.
Reed was advised to capture the eagle and bring it in - which he calls bad advice. "I've had 30 years of experience and training in handling exotic birds. If the average citizen were to take that advice, both the eagle and the citizen could be put in harm's way," he cautions.
After several other attempts at getting assistance, it was the experienced Reed who finally approached the eagles.
"I removed two of the four talons from the other bird's side. Then I picked both eagles up out of the ditch and moved them to a picnic table to finish the separation. This action was enough to make them want to separate on their own and fly 50 feet away, where they got their bearings and flew off in different directions," Reed reports.
"I feel very fortunate to have been involved with the rescue of two of our endangered national treasures," the ranger said. "But," he added, "something needs to be done to help educate the public and get information to them about what to do in situations like this. We're seeing eagles all the time now, and [trouble always] seems to happen on a Saturday or Sunday.
"The public needs emergency numbers to call. Something they can cut out and put on the refrigerator."
Too Close ...
Having lived in Alaska, where the eagle population is not in the least threatened and numbers around 40,000, I'm no stranger to America's symbol. Traveling along the Marine Highway, a state ferry system connecting water locked towns of Southeastern Alaska's fjords and archipelago, I'd look for snowballs in the towering spruce along the shoreline. Find the white dots in the trees and you'd discover the nesting spot of one of the eagles for which this frontier is so famous.
When I begin to feel soft and cuddly about the big bird that can weigh up to 15 pounds with a wing span of six or more feet, I remember my friend from Kenai, Peggy Arness, who watched an eagle sweep away a small dog, its leash dangling in the air:
"Be sure and watch the dogs," Arness warns. "The eagles can fly down and pick a dog up in a flash!! We have seen them do that with a small cocker, and they tried to get our poodle. Anyway, keep your eyes out. The eagles are beautiful, but they are vicious on baby birds, ducks and dogs."
Lots of forces have worked together to help the eagle make its comeback. In Bay Country, now it's our turn to support the eagle's return to sustainable numbers.
If Warren Heising's children grow up thinking of eagles as backyard birds, like youngsters in Alaska, it may mean we too are on a new frontier. It may also mean that we have learned the most important lesson about our national symbol: that the eagle's only natural enemy is us.
Who Can Help
Eagles, and all migratory birds are federally protected. By law, that means that only state or federally licensed entities may handle these birds. Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary in Bowie and Noah's Ark Wildlife Hospital in Pasadena are both federally licensed to handle and care for downed or injured eagles.
Anne Arundel County's Animal Control does get calls about eagles, mostly because people are not sure where else to call. Officer Brenda Evans of Animal Control advises that, "we will respond if a bird is downed or injured, but we would then transport the bird to the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary." Evans reminds us that Animal Control is often short-staffed on weekends like many agencies, as Ranger Reed and the Tauts found last October.
Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary
Greg Lawrence, director of animal care at Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary, says his rehab center offers full hospital treatment for injured or orphaned wildlife. Lawrence confirms that "eagles are on the rise," having treated "seven or eight" eagles while he's been director.
As far as attempts to rescue eagles, Lawrence advises, "most importantly, don't touch them. They can do bodily harm."
"One of the problems," he says, "is that people mistake normal behavior for injury or harm, and abnormal behavior - a bird in shock - for liking people."
Call first for information, he advises.
Although Chesapeake Wildlife Foundation is short staffed, Lawrence says the eagle is the only species they will retrieve, and that's because of the potential danger in handling such a large, wild bird.
The sanctuary is open from 8am to 5pm seven days a week, and from 7am to 9pm in summer.
Noah's Ark Wildlife Center
Velvet Kitzmiller at Noah's Ark Wildlife Center in Pasadena says they get calls about eagles off and on depending on the time of year, although sometimes these eagle sightings are a case of mistaken identity. Other large birds like falcons, osprey, and turkey vultures are often mistaken for eagles. These migratory birds are federally protected as well.
Kitzmiller suggests those who have questions or concerns about a downed or injured bird should have someone keep a watch on the animal and then call for information and assistance, and certainly don't try to handle the bird themselves.
"Unfortunately, people often react before they get the information they need," Kitzmiller says.
Noah's Ark, an all-volunteer wildlife hospital, is operated entirely by donations and staffed 24 hours a day for phone calls.
Where to Call
(This is the list Ranger Reed says to tack on your refrigerator.)
For general information and to report eagle nesting activity:
Eagles and other wildlife in distress:
Birds with bands
To report birds found with federal bird bands, contact the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel at 800/327-BAND.
To learn more
- Mature: Very large, broad winged, broad tailed; white head and upper neck, white tail; yellow, thick, hooked bill.
- Immature: Under 4 years: Dark bill, dark brown body plumage, variable amounts of white on underwings and body.
Unmarked white chin, breast and belly; flat, narrow wings with distinct kink at elbow; short hooked beak; brown tail with white bands; hovers, then plunges into water after fish.
Large, broad winged, broad tailed; short dark hooked beak; extreme variability in coloration depending on species and geography.
Most similar to bald eagle, but distinguished by a tiny, unfeathered head and wings held in a dihedral (wing shape has two intersecting planes), and contrasting paler flight feathers.
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VolumeVI Number 12
March 26 - April 1, 1998
New Bay Times
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