Any morning that starts off with a bald eagle is a banner day — and for some of us, a sight as remarkable as it is thrilling.
I’m still old-school when it comes to witnessing an eagle in my dooryard. Seeing may be believing — but I’m so astounded I can hardly believe my eyes.
Yes, I know these last few years, bald eagles have been making quite the comeback throughout Ohio. Its also a fact that during those same recent years I’ve watched and photographed local bald eagles on several occasions. Moreover, many of those sightings took place along the Stillwater and were viewed from the cottage.
But I grew up and lived through decades when these iconic birds were all but extirpated from the state. Two or three pairs were claimed to nest annually along the shores of Lake Erie. Less reliable whispers said another pair or two might be in residence on a couple of inland lakes.
Yet other than these supposed birds, most experienced birders agreed you could count resident eagle numbers on the fingers of one hand — have digits left over.
Infrequent sighting claims were usually dismissed as wishful misidentifications.
No one I knew ever actually saw an eagle except high and in passing — birds coming or going during spring and fall migrations. And these sighting hardly counted. You generally spotted more of an eagle-shaped silhouette — a dark form against a bright sky — than the actual bird itself.
I’m fairly sure I observed one or two of these high-flying eagles myself. Though given their altitude, they were mere specks against the blue and could just as easily have been pterodactyls.
On a practical basis, eagles in Ohio were more mythological creatures than real flesh-and-blood birds. Rumors of eagles were all we had.
Which is why I’ll never be indifferent about seeing an eagle. Eagles aren’t merely magnificent, they’re living phenomenon! A thrilling and treasured prize.
And this attitude explains my reaction on the recent morning when an eagle swooped past the great-room’s bank of windows which overlook the Stillwater. Just a split-second flash of something huge — but enough that my brain managed a freeze-frame image: glowing white head and fanned tail, dark chocolate body and wingtops, tucked orange-yellow legs, yellow beak and a yellow eye that, from no more than a dozen feet away, had gleamed like a jewel.
I sprang from my chair beside the woodstove, slopping coffee everywhere as I rushed for a better view.
The eagle had landed on the limb of a bankside sycamore maybe 30 feet above the water and almost directly across from the cottage. Not resting but breakfasting — because it immediately began yanking and tearing apart whatever prey had just fallen victim to those lethal talons.
As the eagle fed, I noticed red daubs on its sharp, hooked beak. Whatever had succumbed now lay out of view, on a secondary limb which acted as the bird’s tabletop, and to which it kept its meal pinned with a powerful leg.
I never got a glimpse. But the amount of blood made me think the eagle might have nabbed a squirrel rather than a fish. Possibly one from the bird feeding area in my side yard.
At that time — this happened two weeks ago — the river was frozen bank-to-bank in all but a few places. The big pool in front of the cottage was open, as was a secondary, smaller pool just downstream.
Otherwise, the remainder of the river within my view — a quarter-mile upstream and 300 yards down — were completely ice-capped. As were most nearby creeks and ponds I’d noticed when out and about.
Below zero nights and daytime highs in the low teens soon puts a lid atop every lake, pond, or stream that isn’t fast moving or spring fed. Not good if you’re a bird who primarily fishes for a living. It made sense that my morning eagle would be investigating this particular stretch of open river, since it was one of only a few local options.
Of course bald eagles are flexible in their food targets. Besides fish, birds and small mammals — including domestic stock and pets — are on the menu. And if finding their next meal becomes too problematic, they can always fly off to more reliable territory.
After finishing its meal the eagle adjourned to a different sycamore fifty yards downstream. It sat there awhile before flapping off downstream.
I saw the presumably same bird again the next day, and day after. And until the weather warmed and the combination of melting snow and rains brought the river up several feet — thus clearing out the ice — the eagle continued to show up on a regular basis.
I was just as excited the tenth time as I had been that initial morning. A smidgen of familiarity didn’t dampen my wonder and enthusiasm one whit! I’ll always be thrilled by eagles.
Maybe my morning eagle even knows how I feel. …
After I’d written this column, I realized I’d needed firewood for the night’s heat. It was late, going on 4:00 p.m. Seventeen chilly degrees out. The westering sun was nearing the tops of the tall sycamores along the stream.
But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I bundled up.
About thirty seconds into chainsawing my way through a 30-inch ash log, I felt watched. I looked around. An eagle was sitting on a limb directly across the river. Watching me.
No, I’m not making this up.
That eagle sat there, fifty yard away, as I sawed rounds off the log, split the chunks into firewood sections, then loaded them into a wheelbarrow. Watchful, oddly close, seemingly interested … and I swear, friendly.
Several times I paused and returned its gauze. We looked at one another. Nobody blinked.
When I’d finished, I thanked the bird for keeping me company and watching. Said I’d enjoyed its companionable presence.
The eagle stayed put and watched me roll the wheelbarrow to the door.
Make of this what you will.
I’ll never forget that watching eagle.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org