“Is that an eagle?” someone asks. I tilt my face skyward and see, high above, a large bird circling. Wings motionless, the bird seems to drift effortlessly on the invisible air currents, and as it circles lower, I can see the white of its head and tail. I imagine that I can even see its bright eye, and feel its keen gaze passing over me as it scans the land and water below for prey. “Yes,” I answer. “That’s a bald eagle.”
It is always just a bit more exciting to see an eagle than it is to see most other birds. One of North America’s most recognizable birds, bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are masters of the air. With their 2-metre wingspans, they can soar gracefully on the air currents in a way that we humans can only dream of. And they are also skilled predators, equipped with keen eyesight, talons, and a hooked beak for tearing flesh. Bald eagles eat mostly fish, but they also hunt waterfowl and scavenge for carrion and garbage. Sometimes they even steal prey caught by other birds, such as ospreys.
Bald eagles mate for life, and pairs return to their nests year after year, each year adding material until the nest grows to a massive size. (The largest such nests can be several metres wide and deep, and can weigh over one tonne, the largest nest of any bird in North America – although I find it difficult to imagine a nest of such dimensions.) Since eagles are long-lived, these nests can be used for decades. Eventually, the tree may break under the weight or – after all those years – the tree may simply die naturally and blow down in a windstorm, taking the nest along with it. Even in the nest, eagles are creatures of the air. Their nests are built high in the tops of trees, often in locations with unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. (An eagle’s nest is sometimes called an “aerie”, which sounds a bit like “airy”, although the words actually aren’t related.)
It’s another day, and another eagle. This one is perched near the top of a dead pine tree (dead trees offer better viewing opportunities than live trees, which still retain their leaves or needles), staring intently down into the river below. It’s autumn; the salmon will soon be returning up the river and the eagles have already started to gather in preparation for the feast. As I raise my camera, the eagle’s head swivels and, for an instant, seems to stare directly at me.
The bald eagle, creature of the air, has – especially here in the Pacific Northwest region – a deep connection with a creature of the water and of the ocean: the Pacific salmon. Salmon begin their lives in freshwater streams, but as they grow they travel downstream to the ocean, where they feed on the rich ocean foods and nutrients. Years later, the salmon reach maturity and travel – sometimes in great numbers – back up the streams to spawn and die. In some areas, thousands of bald eagles gather during the spawning season to feed on the dead and dying salmon. Eagles arrive from all over western North America for the event.
Both salmon and eagle have long been important to the cultures of the Pacific Northwest. Even today, eagle festivals celebrate the return of the eagles in autumn and winter. Consuming the salmon, the eagles also consume nutrients that originated in the depths of the ocean and which were carried back inland by a fish that may have began its life in the very river the eagles gather around. It is all part of a beautiful and complex cycle that has shaped the ecology of this region for centuries, connecting ocean to land, sea to sky, salmon to eagle – and also to bear, forest, human.
I have not yet been lucky enough to see for myself any of the great gatherings of bald eagles, yet it is an event I know I must witness one day. But eagles are still a familiar sight to me. For the past two years, a pair of bald eagles has been building a nest in the valley below our house (although they have not yet raised a family here). Almost every day I will see one or both of them soaring overhead or perched on a distant treetop, or hear their odd high-pitched chattering calls (which always, to me, sound very un-eagle-like). Yet, no matter how many times I see them, the eagles never seem like common, ordinary birds. As I said, there is always something a bit more exciting about seeing an eagle than about seeing most other birds.