Bald Eagles in the Apostle Islands


Going Nature’s Way
By Kate Crowley
With the ridiculously warm weather we had last week, the migration of birds returning north accelerated, only this year rather than seeing robins and red-winged blackbirds what I’ve been seeing are lots and lots of Bald Eagles.  It really has been spectacular.
It began three weeks ago when we went to Bayfield and took the ferry over to Madeline Island.  There was ice on either side of the boat as we crossed the Bay, but the sun was warm and the sky was blue.  On the way back to Bayfield I noticed a couple large dark birds performing an aerial ballet, with twists and turns and I knew immediately it was a pair of Bald Eagles engaged in courtship display.  Then I looked ahead and to the left of the boat and standing on the ice floes were at least six dark bird shapes.  More eagles! The boat had left an open channel of water and some were standing near the edge, hoping I guess, for a fish to appear.  As we approached they all took flight and soon the air above the boat was a tableau of these great birds slowly circling above us, with white heads and tails gleaming in the late afternoon sun. 
These had to be early arrivals.  The Apostle Islands are ideal for eagles, with large trees for nests and lots of opportunities to find fish.  Peggy Burtman, a representative from the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore shared the fact that 2015 was a big year with 35 occupied nests, up from 26 in 2014.   Fourteen nests were successful in 2015 with 21 chicks and 12 nests were successful in 2014 with 17 successful chicks, which is quite a change since 1983 when the first eaglet fledged after more than 15 years.  This increase in numbers coincided closely with the bans put on the use of DDT and PCBs. We have witnessed a fantastic resurgence in numbers of our national bird and it is still just as thrilling to see them now as it was when they were threatened.
On Saturday, March 12th I was in Duluth with three Nepali students from St. Cloud.  I decided to show them the city from the vantage point of the Skyline Drive Scenic Byway.  The sky was clear blue and the sun was heating up the volcanic rocks that make up this steep embankment that was once the actual shoreline of the great lake.  The warm air rising from below was providing the perfect escalator for the big raptors. 
I kept pointing out the eagles to the students - ‘there’s one, there’s another one, oh and look, there’s two more’.  It was crazy. I have never seen so many Bald Eagles in transport like this.  As we drove beneath the Thompson Overlook site, we passed a group of guys standing in the parking area with four or five spotting scopes set up.   I decided to stop and see what they were up to.   I asked if they were watching the eagles and they confirmed my suspicions.  Then I noticed one of the men was Frank Nicoletti, the long-time official counter at Hawk Ridge. 
I introduced myself and the college students and we learned that this was one of two locations where they do the annual spring migration count.  Most of us know about Hawk Ridge and the counts done in the fall, but Frank and some others are back at it in the spring to try and get an estimate of how many and what species are coming back.  He told us they’d seen Golden Eagles, as well as Bald Eagles. 
The Golden’s have been increasing in number in our state over the last few years and in fact, when we drove on, just a few miles away we saw three Golden Eagles, one being chased by a Bald Eagle.  I had to explain to the Nepali’s that Mike and I were serious birdwatchers and what we were seeing on this morning was truly special.  Some of the eagles were just above the trees and I pulled the car over to the side of the road so we could watch them more easily. 
The numbers gradually dwindled as we continued to drive north, but there is no question that these birds are the on their way to territories in the Boundary Waters, and up into the Quetico and further north.  By giving eagles protection through the Endangered Species Act, and by removing poisons from the environment, we have brought our national symbol back from the brink.  I wish I could say their future is without worry, but until we get lead out of fishing gear and ammunition, many will die. These birds are at the top of the food chain and so they eat fish that have eaten lead sinkers and deer remains; either gut-piles left behind or animals that are shot, but not recovered by the hunters.  Some eagles found suffering from lead poisoning and are treated by wildlife rescue organizations, but countless others will never have that luck.  Seeing them flying in such great numbers gives us hope, but we must continue to be vigilant and strive for further changes.
I’m sure I mentioned in a column last year that the Minnesota DNR has an eagle web cam set up.  It is in operation again this year at  http://www.webcams.dnr.state.mn.us/eagle/ .  I checked it out this evening and even at night I was able to see the adult and enough motion below to tell me that baby eaglets are like a lot of human babies and are awake and active even after the sun goes down.  It’s a fascinating story to watch unfold live through the camera; with all the drama that exists in nature. 
In the coming weeks, keep your eyes on the sky and see if you can’t spot some more Bald Eagles returning with the sun from their winter sojourn. 


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