Flight of the Eagle – a success story.

I remember a time about three decades ago when, if someone saw a bald eagle in Oakland County or most anywhere else in Michigan, it would be extremely exciting news. I live in northernmost Oakland County and for the past few months, hardly a day goes by without me and many others seeing eagles. That fact leaves me with a very good feeling and serves as a reminder that sometimes nature does find a way with a little help from her friends.

Today was no exception for perfect viewing opportunities. Eagle-watching is a great way for me to start my day fueled first with a cup of coffee, and then it’s off to my favorite eagle location for a view of our national birds. Sometimes I see them in their nests, but it gets much more exciting watching them fly overheard or doing a power-dive into shallow water to capture a fish followed by a rapid flight back to the nest where hungry little mouths are waiting.

I just came back a few hours ago from the site I am monitoring at Independence Oaks County Park and was delighted to capture an image of one of the adults perched on a branch using its wings to capture the warmth of the morning sunlight. My biologist friend confirmed with me that morning wing spreading on a cool day is a means of absorbing solar energy and passively raising their body temperature.

Eagles are highly skilled opportunistic hunters and will often perch on a branch near a shallow lake and wait for a meal to appear beneath them. Then it’s time to swoop down with their powerful talons open for capture. Although I have not witnessed this at Independence Oaks, I have seen it occur at Stony Creek Metropark, where I sometimes visit a nest site that has been there for about a decade.

Rather than always do their own fishing, Bald Eagles sometimes go after other creatures’ catches. A Bald Eagle may even snatch a fish directly out of an Osprey’s talons. Eagles are also scavengers and will feast on carrion, especially dead fish that wash ashore. Fresh roadkill serves as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

An Osprey.

Next week, I’ll be back at my favorite eagle-watching location. Where, might you wonder? I’ll be 100 feet from the ground on the catwalk of the South Manitou Island lighthouse where I will start and finish most every day except during times of severe storms. This will be the fifth year I will be on the island for the month of  June as the lighthouse keeper for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. That location is definitely my happy place, and there is never a dull moment with my eagle-eye view of the sky above and the ground below. When an eagle flies by almost at eye-level or just above me, it allows for dramatic photo captures as the lead photo and this one both confirm. Eagle flybys are not a rare occasion and always thrill visitors to the lighthouse. I am aware of one long-term eagle nest on the island, and I hope it’s still home to this top avian predator.

My exciting encounters with these majestic birds bring to mind the writings of Benjamin Franklin – who was by no means a fan of eagles. Quite the opposite. He wrote about their “thieving tendencies.” I cringe when I see human characteristics applied to any species of wildlife. Had the supposed wishes of Franklin prevailed, our national emblem might well have been a Wild Turkey. Franklin wrote, “For my part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his living honestly. … Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.” I’d like to think that if Franklin was alive today and he watched eagles with me, he might have a change of heart.

A bit of online research and chats with my avid birder friends, including my wildlife biologist associate at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, brought a bit of not-so-harsh meaning to what Franklin may have meant by those two rather damning and unfortunate words, “thieving tendencies.” Although Bald Eagles are skilled hunters and will even intercept fish from Osprey, they will also land on the ground to feed on carrion and off smaller carrion-eaters. None of that is thieving to me, it’s adapting to opportunity, which is always nature’s way.

As many school children learn, the Bald Eagle is our national bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes, “The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 and a spiritual symbol for native people for far longer than that. These regal birds aren’t really bald, but their white-feathered heads gleam in contrast to their chocolate-brown body and wings. Look for them soaring in solitude, chasing other birds for their food, or gathering by the hundreds in winter. Once endangered by hunting and pesticides, Bald Eagles have flourished under protection.”

Of note, had the wishes of Benjamin Franklin prevailed or national emblem might well have been the Wild Turkey. I’d like to think that if Franklin was alive today, he might have a change of heart.

The Bald Eagle is an Endangered Species Act success story after facing the danger of extinction in the mid-1900s. Eagles were listed as an Endangered Species across most of the United States in 1978 apart from five states, one of which was Michigan. Michigan with its good habitat held the lesser designation as a Threatened Species. Eagles made a dramatic comeback from a known low of only 417 pairs in the United States in 1963 to an estimated 320,000 individual eagles in 2022 after the dangers of DDT insecticide became more wildly known largely due to Rachel Carlson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring.” DDT interfered with the ability of birds, including eagles, to produce strong eggshells. Some shells were so thin, that they broke when the bird sat on it for incubation. The EPA banned DDT in 1972. That act became the first major step leading Bald Eagles to the road of recovery. Oakland County with its numerous lakes and protected habitat is once again home to Bald Eagles.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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