Eagle watch

The spring winds are blowing early this year in the high desert.

The range is already carpeted in green nutritious grass for the livestock and wildlife that survived the winter. Bluebirds are jockeying for nest sites in the rock cribs of the barbwire fences, and last year’s fledgling ravens are screaming and barrel rolling with their parents.

However, Gary, a freelance wildlife researcher, is looking for a different signs of the season. The return of a pair of bald eagles he named Sleepy and Scarbeak. A pair he’s been tracking for years and considers old friends.

Gary admits Sleepy and Scarbeak had it made.

They had the best hunting territory. Their roost trees gave them a superb view of the lake where they watched osprey hunt fish so they could take it from them after they caught one. Together they’d wait until the osprey had a fish in its claws and was struggling to climb back into the sky. Then one eagle swoop and startle the smaller bird into dropping its prize while the other snagged the falling fish in mid-air and carried it to the nest. It’s ‘hunting-by-bully’ tactics, done by confident and dominant birds.

Life has been good for this pair. Year after year, Sleepy and Scarbeak produced young eagles that went out into the world and did what eagles did.

For years, Gary used the scar to identify and confirm sightings. He has no idea how Scarbeak came by her scar. He assumes it happened during a territory fight with another eagle.

Sleepy is another matter.

Male bald eagles pull their share of egg-sitting duty. When Sleepy took his turn, he landed on the nest and got settled. A few minutes later, his head wobbled like a bored kid in the back of class. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, his head plunged into the sticks on the rim of the nest and he conked out.

A short time later, his head wobbling like a bobblehead doll in the back window of a car, and Sleepy wakes up. A glance reassures him he hasn’t missed anything and he’d settle into his duties once more—for a few minutes. Then he’d bounce his snoozy head on the rim of the nest again.

All that changed when the fire went through.

A range fire cut a huge swath through prime forest. Hundreds of acres of timber were lost that completely altered bald eagle habitat.

When the fire came, it was hot and fast. Sleepy and Scarbeak’s nest tree exploded and came down. Their roost trees became scorched snags in moments. The eagle pair, a few trees, and the lake were all that was left.

After the fire, the eagles weren’t in any of their usual hangouts. Gary figured they’d changed locations and got on with their lives. That fall, however, he watched as they built a nest in a surviving tree.

Gary left the eagles to themselves throughout the winter. When spring arrived, he checked again. It appeared as though they had abandoned their new nest. While they were still strong enough to hold their territory against other eagles, they spent most of their time perching in burnt out snags. He thinks the fire must have traumatized Sleepy and Scarbeak worse than he’d thought.

However, Gary was hopeful for the eagles. He figures they were still in a state of shock from the massive changes in their territory.

There wasn’t much Gary could do to help the eagles that year. Recovery and reclaiming their lives was something they needed to do on their own.

But that doesn’t mean he’s going to quit checking on his old friends.

Postscript: After three years, Sleepy and Scarbeak began thriving, breeding and expanding their territory. They are alive and well at this writing.

-Bing Bingham is a writer, rancher and storyteller ©2015; Photos by Rusty Whitney… http://www.whitneyeventphoto.com/.

More Bing Bingham stories of the rural American West at http://dustydogcafe.com/

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