Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Mars and I parked near the bright yellow "PESTICIDE APPLICATION" sign and walked down to the river to see some of the bald eagles that have returned to this area since chemical usage around the waterway has been greatly reduced.

We heard about the eagle nest at a recent talk in our town Nature Center. The presenter, K, is a self-trained naturalist, and the son of good friends who we first met during the ten years we all spent in common at an apartment complex in Rocky Hill in the 1970's.

As we settled in to our seats the woman next to me commented on the makeup of the audience. "Perhaps only older people are interested in eagles." I replied that maybe it was only those of us who remembered when they were not here at all.

But they are now -- building aeries in the Hartford area eight to ten miles apart as measured by the land distance of the curving river. K spoke about two of the roosts. One, which he observes on behalf of the Great Meadow Conservation Trust, is in the Wethersfield/Rocky Hill section of the flood plain. A newer nest sits downriver on Gildersleeve Island in the adjacent town of Cromwell near the Tournament Players Club Golf Course. The TPC is an official PGA tour stop and, I would suspect, one of the largest chemically landscaped spots in the area.

The eagles however did not come to play the ancient Scottish sport. They are here instead because of the fish that now thrive in the river, and the tall trees that provide affordable housing alongside their new favorite angling spot.

Because they had been absent for so many years a lot of things are just not known about them -- such as how old they will live to be in the wild. The female of the Rocky Hill couple is calculated at twelve years of age. This is based on observations K made in 2001 relating to the amount of striping around her eyes -- a characteristic, he told us, which appears in youth and gradually diminishes until it disappears in the fifth year.

Learning about these birds requires people who will faithfully and carefully observe their behavior and accurately record what they see. For those of us with less dedication K's instructions were to get ourselves out to the areas he had indicated and look up for "a big dark thing [the nest] in the tallest tree".

We drove to the Cromwell site the next Saturday morning.

Mars was familiar with the route down to the river, it being one on which we traveled periodically during the days when K and our son Bram were still playing with their Matchbox cars at the apartment complex. At that time there was a basket and wicker outlet about one half mile down the road -- one of those "crafty" markets that proliferated off-the-beaten path in the seventies. I do not recall that we ever went much beyond that point.

The store is no longer open and the building is vacant. But the small, semi-rural, mixed style housing is still there with the occasional oversized vegetable garden, pickup trucks and not-yet-vintage "muscle cars" in several driveways, and, on one property, two horses still clad in their winter blankets.

As we got closer to the river the houses got much bigger, much newer, and much more professionally landscaped. The road ended at a closed metal gate on the edge of a neighborhood of what some would consider "McMansions" -- kind of a reverse gated community configuration.

We walked around the barrier for a quarter mile into an area identified by a bent and rusting metal sign as "Wildlife Refuge". Across the river was an island with a clearly visible "big dark thing in the tallest tree". We looked through our binoculars. It got bigger but not that much more distinct.

Then with her naked eye Mars spotted a large bird flying up towards the aerie. It landed, spent a few seconds at the top of the nest, then soared down towards the river in the opposite direction -- and out of sight. Both of us clearly could see the white head and tail. It was the first wild eagle sighting for each of us. After a few more minutes of looking at the action-less nest we left.

As we got into our car to leave I looked again at the yellow "PESTICIDE APPLICATION" sign on the bright green, weed-free McMansion lawn. Things can change a lot over forty years -- some for the better, some not. A lot depends on whether someone who cares is watching.

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