Monday, January 12, 2009

Bald eagles common sights on Red Lake, Ontario

eagle nest, Red Lake, Ontario
I'm often asked about changes that I've seen in the half-century I've lived on Red Lake.

I'm glad to say that one of them is the re-establishment of majestic bald eagles.

It was a rare thing to see a bald eagle in the 1960s. In fact I probably didn't get more than one or two sightings in a summer, and if anyone was in a position to see them it was myself. I spent just about every day on the water, fishing or guiding.

The problem with the eagles was the pesticide DDT which they accumulated in their bodies through the food chain. DDT was used by farmers down south and forest companies even up here to keep insect infestations in check. The problem was it didn't biodegrade. Eventually rain washed it into the water bodies where it was picked up by microorganisms that were eaten by larger oganisms and eventually, fish. Bald eagles ate the fish and absorbed the DDT in their bodies. It didn't kill them outright but made them produce eggs with such thin shells that they broke when the eagles tried to incubate them. It was a common story among all predatory birds and nearly led to the extinction of peregrine falcons and eagles.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s. From that point on the level of it in the environment slowly disappeared. By the 1980s we began to see eagles again and their numbers have increased ever since.

Today you can see and hear eagles virtually every time you go fishing. There are many eagle nests that we know about and probably many more that we haven't seen.

It's a thrill to watch these enormous birds fishing and fighting with each other.

Several of our guests as well as myself have witnessed eagles trying to catch loon chicks. This isn't as easy as it sounds. Loons are fierce defenders of their territories and their young.

The time I saw it happening the eagle would swoop down at the adult loon which had its chick beside it. The loon would rear up and attempt to sink its dagger-like bill right into the eagle. At the last moment the eagle would flare away but would come back and repeat the process. I don't believe it ever did get the chick.

Guests Mike and Lonnie Boyer once saw two adult loons trying to drown an eagle after it ended up in the lake trying to catch a loon chick. They said the loons kept forcing their bodies on top of the eagle as it sculled its way toward shore with its wings. Eventually the eagle was able to spring out of the lake and flew away with nothing in its talons so it appeared the loon chick escaped.

Eagles build massive nests out of sticks and keep adding to them each year. The nests and the eagle droppings end up killing the trees which here are always big quaking aspens. The trees stay standing for years until eventually they are blown over by the wind. In one instance we know where an eaglet survived the crash. The parents then fed it on the ground for the rest of the summer.

Eagles rebuild their nests the next spring usually in the same vicinity.

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