Bald eagle sightings no longer such a rare treat

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  • GRAND RAPIDS — Life along the Maumee River will bring frequent encounters with wildlife as the wide waterway provides creatures big and small with a good habitat for nesting, feeding, and hunting for that next meal.

    Doug Gray can see the river from his residence here, and what he witnessed this winter stopped even a veteran river observer in his tracks. Bald eagles, sometimes a dozen or more at a time, were gathering around the pockets of open water below the dam.

    “It’s not unusual to see a bald eagle fishing up and down the river, but I’ve never seen them in numbers like this before,” Gray said. “It was very unique.”

    Craig Valentine has lived along the same stretch of the Maumee River since 1989, and this winter’s convocation of eagles stunned him.

    “I usually see just one, cruising along above the river, but this winter there would be eight or nine of them at once, all sitting in a single tree,” he said. “This winter has been unusual for so many other reasons, and I guess this is one more thing to make it stand out.”

    Valentine said he would see a mixture of adult eagles, with the signature pure white heads, and immature eagles that are a mottled brown in color.

    “I just think it is amazing that we have so many bald eagles around now, because I remember the days when we thought we might not have any,” Valentine said.

    With so much of the river and Lake Erie shuttered for months in heavy ice, the eagles appeared to be taking advantage of the open water, Valentine said. They would perch at the water’s edge from time to time, scaring off the gulls and Canada geese that were using the same resource.

    The simple fact that people in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are seeing bald eagles, and observing them in significant numbers, is further testament to the amazing comeback these birds have made. In terms of wildlife management, they might be living proof of one of the greatest saves ever orchestrated.

    Bald Eagles were pushed to the brink of extinction in the middle of the 20th century, their population hit hard by habitat loss, hunting, and environmental contamination from pesticides.

    A bald eagle sits in a tree along the Maumee River near Grand Rapids. A 2013 survey found there were 190 bald eagle nests in Ohio. Most of those are found along the lake.
    A bald eagle sits in a tree along the Maumee River near Grand Rapids. A 2013 survey found there were 190 bald eagle nests in Ohio. Most of those are found along the lake.

    By the 1950s, the lower 48 states had just over 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles left. They were given official endangered species status in 1967, but their numbers remained perilously low. Ohio’s bald eagle population bottomed out in 1979, when just four breeding pairs were left in the state.

    With federal protection in place, and a lot of hours and conservation dollars put toward their recovery, bald eagles slowly came back. They had recovered enough by 1995 to have their status changed from “endangered” to “threatened,” and 12 years later bald eagles were removed entirely from the list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. They are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibit killing, selling, or otherwise harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.

    Ohio’s 2013 bald eagle survey showed an estimated 190 active nests, with many of those concentrated on the Lake Erie shoreline and in the marshlands along the lake. As the population has grown, however, new nests have shown up away from the lake, along the river corridors. There also have been bald eagle sightings along Swan Creek.

    Michigan, which has much more ideal bald eagle habitat with its 3,000-plus miles of shoreline and the rugged wilderness terrain found in the Upper Peninsula, saw its active bald eagle nests drop to about 80 when the national population crashed. There are more than 500 active bald eagle nests in Michigan today.

    The bald eagle is unique to North America, and biologists estimate that there are more than 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous United States. Alaska has the greatest abundance of bald eagles, with an estimated population of more than 30,000 in the state.

    Bald eagles usually mate for life, establishing a territory and building a nest, usually in one of the tallest trees in the area. The nests are often used year after year, and with material continually added, they can be 10 feet deep, 20 feet wide, and weigh more than two tons.

    The female bald eagle will lay one to four eggs sometime from late March to early April, and the males and females both take part in incubating the eggs.

    The chicks usually hatch after about seven weeks, and the young eagles make their first flights by late summer.

    It will take four or five years for the immature eagles to develop the white plumage on their heads and tails and the yellow beak of an adult bald eagle.

    The tern “bald” that these birds received from European settlers arriving in North America does not mean hairless. It comes from the old English term “balde,” which meant white.

    The primary food source for bald eagles is fish, but they are opportunistic feeders that will also eat rodents, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion.

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.