Eagles We Have Seen on High

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With all the frigid weather we’ve been having lately, it may seem like it’s time to rename this column Stay In! or perhaps Get Out … But Maybe A Little Later,  After it Warms Up a Bit!

Despite the deep-freeze, however, Millbrook’s natural charms offer no less to the winter walker than to the traveler in milder seasons; they just take more effort to find. But if you have snowshoes and a dog that can carry a flask of brandy, they might be an advantage this year.

The pond is now almost completely frozen, of course, and the Canada geese have largely fled. The warmer-weather songbirds that lingered during our remarkable fall are long gone. My feeders are instead crowded with familiar winter guests: juncos, tree sparrows, goldfinches, nuthatches, blue jays, starlings, chickadees, cardinals, and our local woodpeckers: hairy, downy, red-bellied, and pileated. All are quite common to the area.

But in the sky over my feeder: one very large bald eagle.

Photo Dennis Vanderspek.
An eagle soars over Baxter Creek.

Now, in truth bald eagles have had a good year. According to the annual Christmas Bird Count for Peterborough County — which started in Millbrook in 1905, by the way — there were no less than 13 bald eagles spotted on December 17, the day of the count. That shatters the old record of five.

There are two stories hidden in these numbers.

The first is the remarkable recovery of bald eagles as a species. Late in the last century, they were nearly extirpated by a combination of bounty hunting, habitat destruction, lax regulations, and widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which thins the shells of eagles and other birds. By 1978 there were barely 400 mating pairs left. They were saved by stronger, better environmental regulations in the US and Canada. The recovery of the bald eagle became one of the great success stories of the modern conservationist movement. How discouraging that the current administration in the US is bent on destroying the same environmental “red tape.”

The second story is more local. Bald eagles need forests of large, mature trees to perch and to build their massive nests, which can weigh up to a metric tonne. As a result, they are very sensitive to habitat loss through deforestation and human encroachment. Apart from the Ganaraska Forest nearby and semi-naturalized areas like Jail Hill, we are blessed in Millbrook to have Medd’s Mountain, which is exactly where my wife saw a bald eagle land and drop a white feather a few weeks ago.

It was a spectacular sight. The eagle soared over the pond and then up Baxter Creek, then circled back and alighted atop a massive beech on the mountain. My wife, watching through binoculars, saw the feather fall out of its tail. We drew some hasty mental sightlines with local landmarks and then set out on an impossible quest: find a feather on a mountain.

Well, we did, eventually. After a lot of wandering and clumsy triangulation we spotted it stuck in a cedar’s dense branches about 10 meters off the ground. Much too tall and dense to climb, and neither of us was quite certain of Ontario laws regarding eagle feathers. In the US and some provinces, possession of an eagle feather, even if it falls out of a tree, is prohibited by the Migratory Bird Act or (in the US) the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

That night, a strong windstorm settled the issue.

Get Out! by Dennis Vanderspek

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