EAGLE  ON  ICE

Evelyn Horn

 

It's blustery this February afternoon. I guess that our "false spring" is about over. Drive over to the dam to check on the ice…nearly solid except for the shallow edges. l must remember to check the journal for ice-out dates. There are a dozen or so Mallards on the other side in the flooded cottonwood grove. But no other birds.

Text Box:              Now drive over to Crane Point. There's some open water along the shorelines and in the wetlands to the north of the road. Mallards again, Canada Geese…one lone Great Blue Heron. Scan the bits of open water…wind's picking up now, quite choppy…but there are some birds out there…sitting low in the water…typical of Common Mergansers. A large group with whitish breasts and gray bodies… females? But against the far shore…bright white bodies and dark heads…males. There must be over a hundred all together. They are often the first arriving migrants and seeing them means "spring's on the way." But out where the inlet flow meets the main body of ice… two large birds. Eagles?

            Over the causeway to the eastern end where my view will be better. Two adult Bald Eagles. I wonder if they're the same ones that frequent the north inlet trees…magnificent birds. At one time these birds nested over most of North America, but habitat loss and persecution as "varmints" severely reduced their numbers. Because they are at the top of the food chain, they were greatly affected by pesticide poisoning. I've searched my childhood memories and haven't found a Bald Eagle there at all. Now they're protected and welcomed as regular winter visitors here at the Basin. To the naked eye they don't look very big, but I recall that they are a long way off. They're nearly a yard long with a wing span of over 6-feet and weigh about 9-pounds: a lot of bird!  

Text Box:              Another big bird comes gliding down toward the other two. No distinctive white head or tail…just an overall mottled appearance… likely an immature Bald. The two adults seem to accept the newcomer. I always wonder why birds stand on the ice…seems like little food and less comfort to me. But now two more eagle-sized birds come over Antelope Hill…adult Balds…descending…landing near the others. Fluff and straighten the feathers and all five amiably stand around on the ice. Not feeding or preening…just standing. The immature is at the very edge of the ice…oops! But it isn't at all distressed as the ice gives way…wings spread, sort of fledgling flight…both feet down and through the ice again. Doesn't seem to be looking for food…repeat the procedure…a game? 

            There's another immature coming in from the east…where did he come from! And shadows above me now…two more birds right overhead…mottled dark plumage with whitish areas on the tail and the undersides of the wings. And these join the others…now there's a bit of agitation…finally accepted. Now all four immatures are at the ice edge…fledgling flight…feet out and down…bounce and up again. Repeated until the ice breaks beneath them. I suppose that the softening ice has a bit of give to it…a trampoline of sorts for Hart's Basin Eagles!

Sometimes these extraordinary birds of prey can be seen by the dozen where carrion is left out for them, but to see eight here with four adults and four immatures is unlikely to the extreme. Bounce…bounce…bounce and then flutter away. Back again, and again. The adult Eagles appear to stare off into the distance, seemingly to disdain or even notice such antics. From my human point of view, it looks like fun…if you're an Eagle.

 


NORTHERN  HARRIER

Evelyn Horn

 

Low sun...cloud bank along the horizon...not much time before I lose the light. Strong wind...cold...nothing flying today. Not even a tiny bit of open water...the light-colored lines that I thought might be leads are only strips of clear ice. The sparkling spots are ice crystals upended. Not even a Mallard today...pressure ridges in the ice instead. Suddenly a low‑flying raptor coming out of nowhere...only a few feet above the grass. The wings are held horizontal, tilting back and forth...wingspan's well over 3-feet. There's the unmistakable white rump patch of the Northern Harrier. Dark brown above and tan beneath, so it's a female.

I recall watching these birds "harry" small prey back and forth across this wetland until the final pounce. So "harrier" seems a better name to me than the general sounding "marsh hawk." Their primary diet is mice and such but, like all birds of prey, they'll take anything that they can get, including carrion and other birds...the European name of "Hen Harrier" seems a bit farfetched…the bird's not really that big.

Text Box:   Now she goes hedge‑hopping over the line of brush...hovering into the wind...wings tilted upward ...now blown by the wind, makes a steep banking down just barely above the marsh grass. A sharp turn, across the road with little to spare. A couple of years ago I consistently saw a pair, the brown female and the gray male, just north of the east ponds. The summer breeding range for these birds extends to the tip of Alaska with the wintering grounds into South America, but many are resident within the United States, and mated pairs occur in our region.

I've never seen the twenty‑five foot, U‑shaped  courtship dive of the male, the midair food exchange, or any fledglings. Maybe next season. Now she's working across the pasture...back over the downed tules. Can't make out much of her face...the facial feathers are supposed to be similar to those of an owl, enabling her to hunt by sound as well as by sight. Now back and forth across the lee side of the Dobe slope with its shadscale and cactus...up and gone down the valley. Considering the Harrier's expenditure of energy and her small prey, she lives on a very thin edge of existence, indeed.