Since moving to this old stone cottage, one of my foremost dreams has been to one day see an eagle here on the river. My hopes were high, but I'll admit my faith was—at best—only middlin'…and being a frugal Celt, I wouldn't have placed much of a bet against the odds.
Well, this morning—either as a belated Christmas gift, or a really, really early birthday present—that wish came true. While the photo may not rate much technical or artistic merit, it gives me a proof-positive way to share my joy! THAT'S A SURE-ENOUGH BALD EAGLE! SITTING IN THE SYCAMORES ACROSS AND DOWN FROM THE COTTAGE! OHMYGOD!
Actually, Milady saw it first. I was in the kitchen, fixing an omelet, when she suddenly began yelling: "Eagle! Eagle! I just saw an eagle!"
Seeing as how she spent a number of years living on an island in Alaska, where eagles were common, I had no doubt she knew what she'd witnessed. I dashed into the front room in time to see the big bird flapping several hundred yards upstream, where it then turned and disappeared into the woods. However, that brief glimpse cleared up an overnight puzzle.
Just at the beginning of twilight yesterday, I'd glanced out the window in time to see some large bird flying downstream. I thought I could see some white, plus whatever it was didn't seem to be flapping along like a goose or great horned owl, or even a blue heron. But seeing as how it was at some distance, and in dim light, I figured I was simply mistaken. I told Milady about it afterward, and made a mental note to keep an eye on the river today. The possibility of a bald eagle never crossed my mind.
Almost certainly, however, yesterday mystery bird was this morning's bald eagle. As I watched the eagle flap upstream, I was sure the flight rhythms were identical.
An hour after breakfast and Milady's sighting, I stepped onto the deck to take a photo of a squirrel. I had a 200mm zoom on the camera. Moon the dog ambled along the edge of the river's bank, snuffling through the snow. Suddenly a movement caught my eye…the eagle, coming my way! The bird settled in a tree about 60 yards from where I stood. Luckily, it landed on a limb visible through the tangle of trees and branches. I made a quick photo. Then I looked at the eagle another few moments and made another shot. That may have spooked the bird, or it may have simply been moving along checking out the open pools—anyway, it hopped from the limb, caught the wind beneath its wings, and flew off downstream.
Bald eagles aren't unheard of in Ohio. The south shore of Lake Erie has always had a few pairs of nesting bald eagles—though by the end of the 1970s, after DDT problems decimated the numbers of so many birds of prey, the count of Ohio's Erie eagles was down to 4-5 pairs. Now, thanks to the elimination of DDT and decades of work by the Division of Wildlife, those nesting numbers are back up and continuing to increase.
That, however, is the Lake Erie area of the state, about as far geographically as it's possible to get from where I live and still be in Ohio. Inland Ohio has never had many eagles. A few down along the Ohio River and up its major tributaries. Fewer still around some of the larger, man-made inland lakes. For all practical purposes, though, bald eagles were rare almost to the point of myth. In spite of my state-wide roaming, I never saw a bald eagle anywhere during my growing up and young adulthood, and never met anyone who did.
About thirty years ago I was tooling down a foggy Ohio road nearly a hundred miles from here, on the way to a day of partridge hunting in the southwest hill country. The fog was so thick that at times I could barely make out the edge of the blacktop. When I looked at the indistinct form of an old tumbledown barn near the roadside, I saw the unmistakable form of a bald eagle sitting atop the peak of the sagging gray structure. That was my first-ever bald eagle sighting.
It has always been possible to stumble upon a bald eagle anywhere in the state, at any time of the year. Sometimes one will show up on a Christmas bird count. You might look up on a summer's day—or during any other season—and see this huge bird with a shining white head soaring overhead. A matter of pure luck. I saw an eagle just this way a few years back—looked up, saw what I first thought was a vulture, got the binoculars on it, and realized it was a bald eagle. Even with the binoculars it was so high in the sky that if the light hadn't been just right, I'd have never spotted its form or been able to ascertain the bird's identity.
Now and then a bald eagle might decide to hang around a bit of water for a day or two, or even a few weeks—fishing, resting, and generally thrilling the bird-watching community to no end. Late last winter a bald eagle became a temporary resident of a pond not too far from here…though, alas, I learned of this only after the bird had moved on.
The good news is that Ohio's eagle population is increasing. Nesting eagles have are now reported from several inland counties throughout the state, as well as along Lake Erie and the Ohio River. This summer, for the first time in perhaps the last century, a pair of eagles nested in the county—though miles from my river. Wildlife officials rightly set up a safe parameter around the parenting birds. From a nearby roadway, it was possible to view the nest and occasionally an eagle through a spotting scope. But the setting of crowds and traffic had little appeal, didn't fit the notion I had of how I wanted to see an eagle, so I passed.
My dream was simple…I wanted to see a bald eagle with my own eyes (not through a spotting scope or even binoculars) and if I could have a perfect setting on the details, I wanted to see the eagle along "my" stretch of my beloved old river.
This morning, my dream came true.