It was 2:57 p.m. Friday in downtown Toledo and a memorable outdoors moment was in the making.
The sky was clear and deep blue, the air crisp and bracing, and a low-angled winter sun had turned the afternoon golden. It was one of those feels-good-to-be-alive times.
All that was needed was a finishing touch, some icing on a glorious slice of cake being served up by nature. That was when, high above the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge, a bald eagle swirled into view.
The silhouette was unmistakable - a very large, dark bird, its broad wings held out straight and flat. Its casual soaring gave the impression of incredible strength and utter confidence. No wonder Founding Fathers wanted it as the national symbol.
As the bird wheeled and soared on air currents high above the Maumee River, the sunlight caught the telltale flash of white on its head and tail feathers, contrasting sharply with the brown body. Simply magnificent. The bird circled higher and higher, sliding downriver until it disappeared from sight above the Veterans Glass City Skyway. Too good.
It was the kind of moment that made you want to shout it out loud, somehow call attention to this passing phenomenon aloft over downtown. We miss so much, noses to the grindstone, eyes glued to the sidewalk. The passage of a bald eagle is what you miss when you don't look around and pay attention.
The bird that provided the break in the humdrum of a work day is one of at least 649 present in Ohio right now. We know that because that is the number of bald eagles counted statewide in the annual mid-winter bald eagle survey, which was conducted from Jan. 2 through 15.
The number is a record, far eclipsing the 554 in 2006, the previous high, and the 480 of last year. "And they're everywhere," said state biologist Mark Shieldcastle. He oversees the eagle program as wetlands project leader at Crane Creek Wildlife Research Station, located at Magee Marsh in Ottawa County.
In the recent survey, 426 mature eagles and 223 immature or juvenile birds were counted in 70 of 88 counties. Immature birds lack the characteristic white head and tail of adults and generally are less than five years old.
"Almost all the [resident] pairs from last year were accounted for, and we've got at least 10 new nests already this year," Shieldcastle said. In 2007, 194 young were fledged from 116 successful nests out of a known pool of 164 nests.
The biologist said eagle numbers in the 2007 survey likely were down because of poor field conditions caused by a snowstorm during the survey period. This time, however, "conditions were perfect for people to get out, looking."
Sandusky County led the roster with 76 birds sighted, and Ottawa was second listing 72. Other top counties included Erie, 36, Trumbull, 45, and Wyandot, 32. Lucas County also ranked high on the list with 20 birds seen, and Knox County had 28. Elsewhere in northwest Ohio, Wood and Seneca counties had 14 sightings each.
Good concentrations of eagles were seen along the mouth of the Sandusky River, and along the Koskosing, Mohican, Scioto, Grand, and Muskingum rivers. The southernmost locations with sightings were in Brown, Clermont, Scioto and Hamilton counties along the Ohio River.
The survey was conducted by state wildlife staff and volunteers as part of a national effort coordinated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The effort aims to document trends in wintering populations of both bald and golden in the lower 48 states.
This year, two immature golden eagles were sighted in the survey. Sightings of this species may increase in coming years as its eastern arctic population expands and as birds reintroduced in Georgia and Tennessee also increase in number and territory.
In related news, volunteers wanting to participate in the 2008 monitoring of bald eagle nests have two remaining training sessions to choose from - today from 2 to 4 p.m. at Killdeer Plains State Wildlife Area in Wyandot County and Saturday 1 to 3 p.m. at Big Creek Metropark in Geauga County. For details, call Andrea Tibbels, eagle-watch coordinator, at Crane Creek station, 419-898-0960, extension 25.
In late-arriving news on area Christmas bird counts, the Jan. 5 count at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, the 37th annual, registered 80 species, which is well above the average of 65, according to compiler Tom Bartlett.
He reported, however, that the total number of individual birds counted, 28,694, was below par. A clay-colored sparrow was new to the count, with other unusual species including a merlin and a glacous gull.
Record high numbers were set for trumpeter swan, 37; canvasback, 4,040; redhead, 400; lesser scaup, 870; bald eagle, 42; hairy woodpecker, 12, and common redpoll, 32. A single gadwall was an unusually low number for the species, Bartlett reported in the current edition of Toledo Naturalists' Association monthly newsletter.
In the same letter, compiler Tom Kemp said gale-force winds and an afternoon snow squall cut the second annual Rudolph area count to 58 species. No unusual species were encountered, Kemp said, but he was impressed by the numbers of Lapland longspurs, 877, and snow buntings, 1,122.
In other bird-survey news, Tom Kashmer, down western Sandusky County way, reports a below-average year for tree swallow and bluebird nesting in 2007.
"In fact, it was the worst banding year since 1985," reports Kashmer, who heads the nestbox and banding efforts of Green Creek Wildlife Society. Last spring's cold, rainy weather was particularly hard on early nesters, the naturalist said, and May hatching success was the poorest on record.
Nonetheless, he adds, "I believe the numbers of fledged birds was close to the norm, even though the numbers of banded birds was considerably less." The society listed 26 successful bluebird boxes among those under its care and 47 tree swallow boxes.
Individuals interested in sponsoring a nestbox can contact Kashmer at 419-638-1027 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org.