An aerial courtship display by a pair of bald eagles is a spectacular if fleeting phenomenon, one dramatic enough to make you pull over to the side of the road.
It happened a week ago under a gray darkening evening sky, en route home from a hunting trip to southeastern Ohio, along State Rt. 53 between the hamlets of Fort Seneca and Old Fort in northern Seneca County.
"Andy!" I said loudly enough to rouse my elder son from his passenger-side nap. "Look up there to the right, a pair of bald eagles are circling!" Eagles always get my attention.
Those huge nearly seven-foot wings - stretched flat out, flared large and silhouetted against the murk- were an unmistakable telltale of these great birds of prey. The location was right, too, so near the Sandusky River and known nest territories.
Presently the birds did more than just circle one another. They tightened into a near death-spiral like a pair of figure skaters, and one of the mates flipped over in a half barrel-roll. Then it locked talons with its partner above.
Together they spiraled several times, breaking their descent on widely flared wings. You could almost feel the rush of air displaced by those massive slowly spinning wings.
As quickly as it began the magnificent aerial embrace was over, the birds unhooked and flapped side-by-side toward the Sandusky River.
The observance was a first for me, despite many years of eagle-watching, and an unforgettable memory of the field.
The foregoing experience is shared here among other things to call attention to some bald eagle happenings of note right now.
In addition to courtship, the birds will be mating, an act that usually transpires in the upper reaches of a tree.
Established pairs of eagles also will be refurbishing or perhaps even slightly relocating last year's nests, bringing in fresh sticks to enlarge and shore up the existing constructions.
New pairs, of course, will be setting up shop for the first time, though they may have moved some sticks to a site as early as last fall.
"The [mild] weather has gotten them a little more active," said Mark Shieldcastle, head of the state's Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station at Magee Marsh in Ottawa County.
He noted that six new nests have been confirmed already this winter in addition to the 125 known a year ago.
Two of the new nests are in Ottawa County, two in Sandusky County, one in Mercer County, and one in Delaware County near the Franklin County line.
Of last year's nests, 85 successfully fledged a total of 136 eaglets in 39 counties. All the figures were records and that contrasts dramatically to just four nests in the state in 1979, prior to a determined federal-state eagle restoration program.
Though the western Lake Erie/Sandusky Bay counties remain the state's eagle heartland and stronghold, the birds have expanded their range down river corridors southward, such that the entire state now is spanned.
In 2005 Brown County on the Ohio River recorded its first modern-era nest near Ripley. An eaglet was fledged there.
While nesting typically is in full swing from March through May, some nests may begin as early as sometime in February.
Last and not least on the eagle front, Ohio Division of Wildlife staff and a corps of volunteer observers are amid the annual mid-winter eagle survey, a continentwide effort that began last Monday and continues through next Sunday. Any bald eagle activities during the period should be reported to the Crane Creek station by calling 419-898-0960.
The mid-winter survey is conducted to determine the wintering eagle populations of North America.
Last winter 366 bald eagles were reported in Ohio, 247 of them adults and 119 juveniles or immatures.
Observers are advised not to approach any nests, which are protected by state and federal law to minimize human interference, which during nesting could lead to abandonment of a nest.
Golden eagles also can be reported in this survey. But they rarely are seen in Ohio and often confused with immature bald eagles by untrained observers. Goldens, however, are expanding their range in the eastern arctic and they are being reintroduced into Georgia and Tennessee. So an increase in Ohio winter sightings is likely.
The 73rd annual Christmas Bird Count of the Toledo area netted 84 species, according to Matt Anderson, official count compiler for the sponsor, the Toledo Naturalists' Association.
Anderson called the TNA species' tally "very respectable. We've exceeded this year's total only eight times since the count was instituted in 1932. The all-time high count of 90 was achieved in 1983 and again in 2003."
Hundreds of counts are conducted each holiday season through much of the Western Hemisphere to help form a picture of the status of various bird species and their populations.
Most interesting birds confirmed, Anderson said, were American pipit and dunlin, one each at Bay Shore Power plant; a pine warbler in a yard near Mallard Club State Wildlife Area; and four field sparrows in two different areas. The latter is a species rarely seen in the Toledo count in recent years, the compiler noted.
The most numerous species included scaup, two similar diving-duck species, 6,200; ring-billed gull, 4,448; European starling, 4,406; mallard, 3,040; herring gull, 3,032, and Canada goose, 2,180.
"With misses [unseen but expected species] including tundra swan, gadwall, American wigeon, sharp-shinned hawk, long-eared and short-eared owls, yellow-bellied sapsucker, pine siskin, and others, you can see that it would not have taken a whole lot of additional luck to push to or beyond the all-time high," stated Anderson.
"There were no knock-out birds this year. Dunlin was recorded for the 10th time ever on a Toledo CBC, American pipit for just the fourth time, and pine warbler for the sixth. The 14 Cooper's hawks establishes a new all-time tally for the count. Recent Toledo CBC results show an increase in this species' local winter-time population."
In another major area event the annual Grand Rapids-Watterville Christmas Bird Count, compiler Tom Kemp reports 65 species tallied "despite high water on the Maumee River and almost complete lack of waterbirds."
The total, Kemp said, was just one shy of the 10-year average. New for the count were peregrine falcon and pileated woodpecker.
"Seen for the second time was white-winged crossbill. Also found were northern shrike and chipping sparrow. All-time highs were set for flicker, 43; hermit thrush, 7; chipping sparrow, 3; white-throated sparrow, 48; white-crowned sparrow, 22, and Lapland longspur, 754."
Anderson noted that bird enthusiasts can find updates on interesting sightings and other counts by visiting a Web site established by his cousin, Chuck Anderson, at www.rarebird.org. Birders also can check TNA's rare-bird hotline, 419-877-9640.
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