Eagle eyes watch everything

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG A pair of Bald Eagles watch intently all the activities on the ground below them including this photographer. The pair of raptors were perched in a tall cottonwood tree not far from Albion on Jan. 13. While my long lens was capturing their images, they were most certainly doing what comes naturally to them, watching me with eyes at least four to eight times sharper than human eyes. I had the advantage of being inside my truck, window down, and using the vehicle as my photo blind. It is likely that this pair of eagles may be just a few of past successful nesting birds in Marshall County. At least eight known eagle nests can be attributed to local sites. Territorial defense of their nest is taking place right now in preparation for another chance to raise a new generation of bald eagles during 2018.

BALD EAGLES (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are now common sightings for us Central Iowans. Lots of eagles are gathered at places like the open water below Red Rock dam near Pella. Or if you are so inclined, take a road trip to the Mississippi River. Every place along the big river from Harper’s Ferry, to Lansing, Marquette, McGregor, Guttenberg, Dubuque, Bellevue, Clinton, Davenport or Burlington will have lots of Bald Eagles to observe.

These regal birds of prey are adequately adapted to survive. They are widely distributed over coastlines and inland waterways of Canada, the U.S. and northwest Mexico. Their range extends from Alaska and the arctic tundra to sub-tropical mangroves of the Gulf coast and Florida. Survival seems to be in their favor during the last three decades as overall populations expand.

Us humans get the opportunity to watch eagles on the nest at Decorah via a remote camera setup. Live feeds of real time activities are available via our electronic devices and computers that allow us to spy on the pair of eagles that claim this nest. The camera is up and operating 24/7 to allow us a window into whatever happens during 2018. It is not our place to judge how a nesting season progresses with notations of “good” and “bad.”

The history of Decorah’s eagles is well documented. Video clips of past successes and/or the realities of nature in its rawest forms are all before our eyes to witness. In past years, record keepers have duly noted the number of eggs laid, dates of hatching, and survival of the chicks through fledging. Since 2007, at least two if not three eaglets hatched each year. Most made the transition to flying status, a few did not. Beginning in 2012, new hatchlings were designated by a “D” for Decorah and given a number. Eaglets in 2102 were thus called D12, D13 and D14. Three hatched in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Two hatched in 2016. 2017 returned to three baby eagles and they were numbers D26, 27 and 28.

The long-term outcomes of each eaglet has been recorded if facts can be obtained as to the circumstances they encountered. Some have died for a variety of causes including electrocution or being hit by vehicles. A study of the corpses by wildlife authorities is possible in these cases. What is not known and never will be known are all the other factors that influence an eagle during its life in the wild. They do get sick and die. They are sometimes subject to predation. Most of these incidents are not observed by people. It is nature in the raw as nature has always been.

The gritty side of nature and its life and death struggles take place all the time. Here is where people get in the way, primarily because they let emotions override facts. At a camera nest site in Minnesota a few years ago, an eaglet was not doing well. An outcry to “do something” came in from all across the country. The experts in biology did do something … and that something was to let nature take its course. Well, you can imagine the disdain this caused by the misguided and uninformed. It is understandable to an extent but cannot be the basis for interfering. While people’s empathy is triggered by cuddly animals, experts take the long term view of what is best. And that is to not intervene. These are after all, wild animals, not pets. Never forget that point.

It is a testament to the abilities of the experienced Decorah adult Bald Eagle pair to pull of a successful nest every year. It is outstanding that three eggs laid can result in three eaglets fledged to fly off and begin a life of their own. What is much more likely in each and every one of the thousands of eagle nests all over North America is for two of the three to make it, or for only one of two hatchlings to make it. We humans do not see the gritty realities of circumstances that envelop to cause a death of a young bird. And we will never know why in some cases adult eagles abandon their nest. Yes, this happens too.

Keep your eye out for eagles. They will probably see you also with their superb vision. In Iowa, this winter during an annual mid-winter Bald Eagle survey, it is likely that over 5,000 will be counted. Almost every county in Iowa will have wintering bald eagles. But for sheer numbers that will be hard to miss, the big river of the Mississippi with lots of forested lands along its borders and open water below locks and dams, will act as a magnet to allow eagles to find fish to eat. Let your eyes enjoy watching eagles.

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WINTER SURVIVAL of small birds that are considered year round residents takes a lot of effort for these animals. A small bird my tip the scales at a weight of 10 to 25 grams. This is similar to how much two to five nickel coins weigh. Small birds use a number of methods to stay warm under all their feathers. First, for flocks of small birds, sticking together means there are lots of eyes looking for predators. More eyes means more time to see and defend by early flight to escape cover. Beware of Cooper’s Hawks and their kind who have to live by catching and eating other birds.

Second, small birds need to eat as much as possible, preferably the heaviest, fattiest foods such as black-oil sunflower and suet. Food is fuel for the gas tank of these little critters. Third, after good meals that fill up the tank, they will fluff up their feathers to trap warm air next to the skin, and then sit still to conserve energy. Food plus feathers equals warmth. Which bring us to point number four; Stay out of the wind by getting behind a thick branch, or hiding places at the bases of tall grasses. Any sunshine filtering into these places also helps warm the air a bit. Lastly, natural cavities in hollow tree trunks or branches work like mini bed rooms. Old woodpecker holes serve this purpose. Some small birds like chickadees lower their body temperature at night which is an energy saving technique.

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DEER harvests numbers in Marshall County for the 2017-18 seasons shows that 257 doe deer were taken, 354 antlered bucks, 43 button bucks and three bucks with shed antlers. “Sheds” is the term used for buck deer that lost their antlers earlier than normal. To the hunter they would appear to be a doe deer. This is always a small number in comparison to the big picture. Total deer hunter take was 657. Just six doe deer were taken inside the Marshalltown City limits by archers. The statewide total deer kill was about 105, 900 (plus or minus) or about 25 percent of the estimated statewide population prior to any deer seasons.

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Next week we will, if there are no clouds to hide it, a BLUE MOON on Jan. 30. A blue moon is the term used for the second full moon in a one month period of time. And it can also be called a SUPER MOON. Look for old impact craters on the moon’s surface from past asteroid collisions. Binoculars or telescopes are an immense help to see details of the moon’s surface.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.