On the way

Sep 22, 2017

We’ve got a nature-oriented guest coming to town who I suspect has never seen a bald eagle. I’m pretty sure he’d really enjoy the sight, so I’m on a quest to learn how to see this beautiful white-headed, wide-winged bird in the wild right here in northern Indiana, or at least to increase our chances.

In the continental United States we nearly killed off the bald eagle during the days of the pesticide DDT.  Through a fascinating food-chain process called biomagnification, DDT weakened the shells so much that their eggs would break when the adults sat on the nest. I never saw even a single one of these birds as a child, nor even for most of my adult life. At the lowest point, in the 1950s, there may have been as few as a thousand of them nesting here, but now there are tens of thousands in North America again. Lately we hear that there are nesting pairs in a couple of the larger, wilder parks in our region. If you take a hike along a lake or a river, you increase the odds of seeing one that has gone out fishing.

They like zooming along above a river looking for lunch in the water below, which accounts for the just-got-out-of-the-shower look of the one bald eagle I saw fly by on a float trip in Colorado a couple of years ago. But, as I said, I want to see them here at home.

I may have already seen one right in town, though I’m not sure. Last spring as I drove across the narrow bridge near the Farmer’s Market, in my peripheral vision I glimpsed something like a rocket-propelled snowball heading upstream. I couldn’t take my eyes off the road, couldn’t confirm that this was an eagle, but it was too big to be most of the other whitish birds on our stretch of the river. And who knows? Maybe it was just a rocket-propelled snowball.

Hikers and rangers in various parks along the St. Joseph River say they see the birds on a regular basis. One ranger said he loves to see them coming up from the river in the afternoons, back from fishing, their huge wings spread wide, flying overhead, he said, like B52s.

So they fly among us. But it’s not so easy to say, “I’m going out to see a bald eagle now.” Last weekend my spouse and I followed all the instructions posted at a nearby park and were fortunate to see, at some distance, for a second or two, a flash of wide wings, a spot of white tail feathers, as one bird landed near the top of a particular tree a half hour before sunset. It jumped down into a lower bunch of leaves, where we lost sight of it. But ominously, the branches there began shaking. The most likely thing to explain the shaking, we guessed, was that the big bird was tearing chunks of flesh from the body of a piece of prey or carrion.

But the park ranger said we got lucky on our first outing, and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to show our guest a bald eagle when he arrives or not. I stood in the same lucky spot at the same time for a full hour the next evening and saw nothing. Or I should say, I didn’t see an eagle. Alone there with my thoughts, I saw the sun flashing across the western clouds, heard the bugs and frogs making rythmical commotion, I saw the unexpected blush of red in the field plants whose leaves had already gone brown, I felt the slow movement of the hour measured out moment by moment in the dimming of the row of tall trees where I suspect the eagles had already settled in for the night. No eagles, but it was a beautiful hour nonetheless.

Music: "Wrong Foot Forward" by Flook