Going to town: Bald eagle rebounds in a big way

Going to town: Bald eagle rebounds in a big way

It was spring 1986. It’s easy to remember the year because I had my new sidekick along for the trip when I set out on a Saturday morning to travel more than two hours northwest of our college campus to witness something that neither of us had ever seen.

Cruising along state Route 2, the “bird guy” in me was already giddy from increasingly frequent sightings of ducks, geese, herons and even the occasional egret as we paralleled Lake Erie across a vast wetland plain. My companion worried — as she does to this day — I might drive off the road as I strained for a closer look. Then just ahead and no more than a hundred feet above the highway, we spotted the unmistakable, vibrant white head and tail of our very first bald eagle.

Pulling to the side of the road with flashers blazing, we joined dozens of others from all over the state who had made the same pilgrimage. Together we were witnessing the beginning of one of the greatest comeback stories in North American wildlife.

That “new sidekick” of mine, Kristin, would eventually become my wife. (You didn’t think I let a girl get away who would cheerfully spend half a day in a car just to go see a bird, did you?)

Last weekend on our newly “mandatory” Saturday morning dog walk (our new mutt Frankie has come to require such jaunts), I looked to the sky above downtown Orrville to find two large silhouettes flying in close formation. It’s not all that unusual to spot very large birds circling above town. In the past 10 or 15 years, a large population of turkey vultures has grown to call our home their home, much to the chagrin of its all-to-common detractors. But these were no vultures.

One pass in front of the sun and the truth shown through in translucent glory. These were bald eagles, a pair of them, dueling for either love or territory directly above the city center.

Rising high into the air, the matched pair, nearly identical in every respect, would gap apart slightly with one seemingly trying to gain strategic advantage. Then the bottom bird would roll over mid-flight, with talons raised skyward as the other bird engaged from above. There were moments when it appeared the pair would fall all the way to the earth below for want of a winner. Eagle research tells us both love and war look very similar to the average ground-bound observer, and for the life of me, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Because I’ve watched nesting pairs along my route to work on a near-daily basis for the past several years, I suspected this might be a bona fide border skirmish. Latitude, climate and the consistent availability of food seem to be the primary determinates of nesting season in bald eagles. With both of my “local” pairs seemingly well beyond the courting stage for the year, they were well along in incubation. Young eaglets seem set to appear any day. If this pair of eagles was planning a family, they’d do best to get on with it.

As far as fighting goes, there have been cases of nests being raided by unattached adult eagles. In one highly publicized, relatively local case (North Ridgeville), a nested pair was attacked by an adult female eagle that killed the new mother and wrestled the chick away from the father before eating the hatchling.

Again, I have no way of knowing exactly what was going on in the sky above Orrville that Saturday morning — other than the miracle of a species once perched on the very edge of extinction now soaring high above my hometown.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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