(Copyrightę 1998 David Tilley)
Reprinted from "The Nfld Sportsman" (March-April 98)
The American Bald Eagle with its fierce predatory instinct and enormous wing span would be better suited to the movie set of Jurassic Park then the sea cliffs of Nfld. In an age when most creatures have evolved to survive by becoming smaller thus requiring less food energy to live, the eagles have earned their place at the top of the food chain by remaining unchanged for countless millennia. All the more reason why they remain one of the most prized subjects for photographers and bird watchers. It is no coincidence that the Bald eagle appears on the American Seal of Office. No creature better symbolizes might and aggressive zeal then the screaming eagle as it plummets from the sky able to tackle even such large prey as a caribou calf. It is this awesome strength and ability that has led to fear and persecution on the part of farmers and ranchers who were apt to credit such a fearsome creature with the disappearance of livestock. These suspicions however unfounded were usually enough to lead to attempts at extermination as birds were poisoned or shot from aircraft. The more sinister unseen presence of toxic pesticides such has DDT, finally banned in Canada in 1972, had the effect of thinning egg shells and reducing reproductive success. The road to recovery as been a long rocky one with many nestlings having to be transplanted to repopulate former ranges.
In few places is the recovery more apparent then along our coast, where sightings of these magnificent birds, once extremely rare, are now almost commonplace. Although the Nfld. eagles are wild and will disappear at the first sign of an intruder, in most cases they have become accustomed to fellow fishers. Lobster and herring fishermen make morning rounds to even the most secluded coves. From a perch atop an ancient spruce that anchors to a cliff ledge, the eagle surveys the activity with a keen but trustful eye, ever mindful of her defenceless chicks watching skyward in anticipation of a noon feeding.
It is the nesting behaviour of these great birds and of raptors in general that makes photographing and learning about them possible. The absence of large sturdy trees near fishing grounds usually means that a cliff ledge aerie will be selected for the three months of incubation, brooding and feeding the fledgling eagles. It is just as well that brooding is nearly ended by the time the ice choked bays have been cleared and the shoreline becomes accessible. A brooding eagle is easily disturbed and will likely abandon her chicks in favour of a second attempt in an undiscovered location. Already taxed from the long weeks of protecting and feeding them through the harsh NorthEast winds and foul spring weather, she will shrewdly choose to renew her efforts in order to guarantee the arrival of the next generation rather then risk a failed season. The noble efforts of the mother eagle have led to her selection as the guardian of a surviving breed where many have failed before her.
Once the adult eagle leaves to hunt she returns periodically to feed the chicks with no preference for the last born who will be commissioned to leftovers and a weaker condition from the start. When watching eagles at the nest site it is possible to predict feeding times from the adults punctuality. Sitting on a cliff ledge accessible by sliding down through a thick mat of twisted spruce I can share in this world of eagles. The view of the open Atlantic and distant islands is breathtaking as the laughing heckles of glaucous gulls is drowned by the roar of breakers crashing against the rocks below. The gull is a sworn enemy of the eagle who is notorious for stealing its young. The larger bird is constantly harassed by the vengeful gulls but is content with dodging and avoiding them. Crows and ravens, more devious opportunists then the eagle wait at every opportunity for a chance to steal food left for the eaglets. Leftovers usually consist of no more then bone and feathers as the rapid growth rate of more then a centimetre a day taxes the parents hunting abilities. An intruding raven causes a great upset in the chicks and within minutes the adult flies screaming to the rescue landing long enough to dispel any fear of possible injury before leaving to resume fishing across the water. The apparent distance from which an eagle can watch the nest is proof of its amazing ability to discern far off details. Even the most powerful binoculars invented can only aid the human eye in viewing very small areas. The eagles ability to see the entire horizon in such great detail must keep the folks at Nikon guessing.
The utter strangeness of a world seeming to be dominated by flying and swimming creatures brings home the fact that has human beings we are just one of a multitude of strange and fascinating alternatives that have evolved to take advantage of every possibility for life on this planet. The land on which people can thrive is but a small fraction in a challenging and diverse world.
As the summer progresses my weekly visits are greeted with the sight of an incredible transformation as the scrawny chicks adopt the appearance of wise monks in their lofty perch at the edge of this other world. Their motley juvenile feathers become a solid dark brown as outstretched wings display an ornamental array, once prized as headgear for tribal chiefs and kings. Constantly looking skyward the hungry fledglings are excited once again by a tiny speck that appears on the horizon. Suddenly the great bird swoops onto the nest driving the wind ahead of it as it releases from its powerful talons yet another prize catch. The head is thrown back in a startling cry of victory while one of the young birds tears hungrily into a downy young gull, the other timidly trying to edge its way in to share in yet another feast. Then as abruptly as on arrival the ancient bird leaps into the air and is once more aloft.
The capelin schools are a much needed bonus to many marine animals, especially nested seabirds and raptors, arriving at a time most critical in the development of nestlings. The proficient parent wings to a nearby landing to pluck them from the water before delivering the live "sushi" to the excited youngsters. The sea becomes a horn of plenty as the writhing morsels are dropped repeatedly in frenzied spurts until the young birds become engorged, collapsing in a satisfied sleep.
Soon, as midsummer approaches the young eagles with the power of their instincts overcoming their fear will make their first leap of faith to glide to a sea stack a hundred meters below. With continued home delivery and increasing strength they will finally and regrettably fly forever into a future and parts unknown. Whenever I drive past an area where eagles sometimes fish for herring I am ever watchful to spot one of the birds whose picture hangs on my wall. It is known that occasionally the eagle because of its instinct to scavenge may be spotted feeding on a seal carcass on the ice. Wether seal hunters would see this as a threat to their livelihood is unclear. There have been reports of dead birds washing ashore at times and it is hard to believe that anyone would kill such a creature unless they felt, however mistakenly, justified in some way.
The progress of our eagles is an added bonus for boaters and tourists in general as Nfld becomes a preferred destination for people who appreciate our wildlife resources and respect our ability to care for them.