Bald Eagles leave a lasting impression
Plus, the sublime beauty of a furtive sparrow of northern marshlands.
First, a word about my experience with Short-eared Owls…
The Short-eared Owl at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge led with her impressive talons when diving. She dove at least 10 times as I watched, and she usually popped up a few seconds later and continued hunting. The small rodents she was after seemed to elude her. She flew over the prairie in random circular patterns interspersed with straight flights. I stood still and watched and she repeatedly flew past me at close range, but never as close as the first time she flew over me.
Bald eagles leave a lasting impression
We took our sons to see eagles just north of Havana, Ill., when they were 10 and 12 years old. The bluff on the east side of the Illinois River that overlooks the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge provided wide-open views of the river valley. As we slowly cruised down the county road, I was engrossed in the landscape while my kids were engrossed in screens. We thought a close encounter with these large regal birds would capture our kids’ attention. At one point, we had a clear view of the refuge from the top of the bluff. I noticed an eagle soaring nearby and we pulled over, parked, and stood on the bluff hoping the eagle would come closer.
We prompted our kids to observe the eagle through binoculars. They said that they saw her high in the sky, but at this point, the sighting did not appear to make much of an impression. The eagle was soaring over the bluff in lazy circles, and she was slowly drifting in our direction. To our great surprise, she quickly lost altitude and flew by us at close range. The mature bird with its brilliant white head and tail and dark brown body was illuminated by the morning light as she flew by just over the tops of the trees. She was scanning the wetlands in the floodplain and making subtle adjustments to the position of her wings and tail to stabilize her flight. We stood in silence as she floated past us. I thought I detected a hint of awe in my sons’ expressions.
We lost sight of her for a few seconds and then we noticed a flash of brown down low between the tree trunks. She was diving over the water to flush ducks and geese. A low rumbling noise raced across the water as hundreds of ducks and geese took flight. Two juvenile Bald Eagles joined in the chase and all three eagles circled above the open water. The adult eagle seemed to lose interest in the waterfowl, and she started chasing one of the juveniles. As she approached the young eagle he would flip upside down and throw out his feet as he spun around in a complete circle. The adult and juvenile repeated this maneuver several times over the course of a few minutes. Were they playing or fighting? We could not tell, but this dramatic display intrigued my kids.
Seeking to capitalize on this moment, I said “We cannot ask for much more than that! What did you think?” They said “That was cool and it was all right” as they scrambled back into the warmth of the car.
I was a little surprised and disappointed in their lackluster response at the time, but I have since come to see that experiences like that matter even if it is not immediately apparent. Over the next few months, we had several conversations about eagles, and I would hear my kids telling their friends about seeing them up close. The eagles and the sweep of the Illinois River Valley had entered their imaginations.
The Mississippi River Valley just west of us is also home to large numbers of Bald Eagles every winter. Connecting with our national emblem is now easy to do in Illinois; we have the largest wintering Bald Eagle population in the lower 48 states. An estimated 3,000 Bald Eagles overwinter in Illinois. During the summer breeding season eagles nest in nearly every Illinois county. This is a remarkable recovery story that began in 1967 when Bald Eagles were listed as an endangered species. Their population had crashed due to exposure to DDT and other pesticides. Subsequent bans on these pesticides combined with an increased awareness of how vulnerable eagles are to habitat destruction gave them a chance to recover and they slowly increased their numbers. They began to appear in natural areas in central Illinois in the 1980s. As their population expanded, they learned to adapt to people and a modified environment. This led to more eagles being spotted in urban areas. The first Bald Eagles nested on the Little Calumet River in Chicago in 2004. There are now an estimated 35 nests in the Chicago region.
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‘A tiny being of incomprehensible beauty’
Earlier this fall, I took a trip across the Mississippi River and into Missouri. An enchanting golden sparrow revealed the incredible beauty of nature, amidst a degraded environment near St. Louis. Nelson’s Sparrows are tiny beings of incomprehensible beauty. We were in awe of her bright gold cheeks and breast. The gold color diffused across her wings and blended with brown, gray, and white. She was both brilliant and subtle, and she perfectly matched the fall grass.
Nelson’s Sparrows breed in large tidal and inland marshes and almost certainly this bird spent her summer in a wild place. She may have flown into St. Louis on a direct flight from Polar Bear Provincial Park on the shores of Hudson Bay. A bit of rare golden wildness on the bank of a once wild river. The Mississippi is largely subdued, but she will forever be mysterious, secretive, and aloof.
A variety of circumstances combined with luck produced this potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience. We watched her catch and eat cold grasshoppers for several minutes. This normally shy and retiring sparrow was out in the open seemingly unconcerned with our presence. After a few minutes, the spell was broken and she flew off into the depths of the prairie. We were changed by the encounter. We felt deep and abiding happiness along with excitement. These feelings were enhanced throughout the morning as news of our sighting brought in more birders. We made connections with new and old friends who were eager to catch a glimpse of this rare yellow-and-orange sparrow. We kept retelling our story and reveling in it as if it were some great heroic exploit. In the process, we got pulled along in an undercurrent of connectivity and empathy. The bird’s beauty and genuine human connection produced a sublime cathartic experience. Such is the power of birding.
TWiB contributor Bill Davison is a gardener, biologist, birdwatcher, writer, photographer, and hunter-conservationist.
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