The Naturalist's Journal

Sometimes Irish eyes do smile and reward the persistent with a surprise, such as this completely unexpected sighting of a mature Bald Eagle along a power line in Ashaway. 

 

Everyone has a Saint Patrick’s Day tradition. Perhaps it’s going out to an appropriate pub for a pint of green Guinness (God forbid!), or taking in an Irish music session of fast-paced jigs, reels, and step dancing. Maybe you fancy just listening to sad tales—these, for better or worse, abound—from the Emerald Isle in the quiet of your living room, after which you might perk up your spirits with a platter of corned beef and cabbage or bangers and mash; the latter delight is what I made and served to our celebrants. (If you’re Irish-cuisine-challenged, B&M is Irish sausage, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage topped with an Irish stout-based, heavy on the onions and mustard gravy, and, in my case, chased down with a dose of my artery-clearing statin medication. Maybe I should have made the latter a double.)

But before I indulged in any of the above, I had another March 17th tradition to pursue. Every St. Paddy’s Day, I hit the natural history trail in search of a number of critters that, based on years of records, my journal tells me should be back and active on the ridge and the surrounding neighborhood. An early-morning look at the recent entries on the Rhode Island Rare Bird Alert from e-Bird (ebird.org/alert/summary?sid=SN35613) told me that a few favored birders had spotted the first returning Osprey, Piping Plovers, Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets, Eastern Phoebes, Tree Swallows, and Rusty Blackbirds, among others. So there were clearly many discovery possibilities out there just waiting for this observer, and, to reinforce my sense of optimism, no sooner did I let the cats out the kitchen door than a large shadow passed overhead and drew my attention skyward.

These days, I always keep a telephoto-zoom-equipped camera close at hand, and when I located and focused in on the raptor-like soarer, I quickly spotted the light, primary wing feathers that offered a sharp contrast to the otherwise dark wings, body, tail, and head. These are the field marks of a Black Vulture, a largely southern species that seems to be increasing around here. 

The sighting augured well, I thought, and after finishing some overdue writing, photography, house, and land trust projects, I took up my March 17th charge and made the rounds to some of the most productive local spots. 

The first assignment was to walk across the street and scan the meadow and the trees for Phoebes, but those songbirds, which sing a raspy version of their common name over and over, were neither seen nor heard. Down the road, one of my touchstone ponds, now completely ice-free, hosted a new flock of Goosanders, a handsome sight, and at another pond, the recent arrivals, from Red-winged Blackbirds to Ring-necked Ducks, that I’ve chronicled in the Journal were joined by the first-of-the-year—that’s FOY, to the cognoscenti—Wood Ducks, which, alas, were too far away for a decent picture.

Next, it was on to Laurel Street in Ashaway to check out a fallen tree in the middle of the Pawcatuck River that continues to offer a landing area for a variety of birds. A couple of days earlier, it had been empty, but this afternoon, it was occupied by another group of new arrivals—a small flock of Double-crested Cormorants. This slender diving bird is an expert angler, and its sleek shape and orange-yellow chin are good identification features. In the next couple of weeks, the number of cormorants on the tree will swell to more than several dozen as they take advantage of the easy pickings at the Potter Hill Dam fish ladder.

While I was edging as close as possible to the edge of the river for a good shot, I spooked one more migrant, this one a Woodcock. It rose out of the underbrush and quickly found another patch to vanish within, so no image. But the bird’s presence means that it’s now time to start listening for peents and watching for the sky dances that will soon dazzle every twilight naturalist.

A short drive later, where the National Grid power lines cross River Road in Ashaway, I located my FOY Osprey on a nest platform on a crossbeam. Seeing a pair of those magnificent birds made my heart soar, since their presence here is proof-positive that there can be success stories in conservation. In the late-1970s, I was part of a team that documented the first egg-laying and fledgling by these fish-eating raptors that had been all-but-wiped-out by the pesticide DDT. Now, we have them, and their children, and their children’s children, every March. It’s a genuine blessing.

But as I scanned the trees growing at the edges of the power line cut, I thought I noticed something out of place. I took a photo that was too fuzzy to be sure of anything, then another, then another.

I enlarged the result and what I saw appeared to be a pair of very large raptor-like birds, both much bigger than any osprey. One of the mysteries was dark. The other—be still my beating, perhaps faster than was good for it, heart—sure looked like it had an entirely white head.

Impossible, I said. Absolutely impossible.

However, just to be sure that I wasn’t being given a gift by the day’s namesake saint, I drove to a pull-off where the lines cross Potter Hill Road and walked towards where I’d last seen those huge birds with equally massive beaks. The Osprey pair put on a glorious show, mostly out of annoyance, as I passed by their potential nest, and as I scanned the right section of woods, one of the enormous raptors, the all-dark one, flew from its perch. I fired burst after burst of shots with my camera, and when I looked quickly at the result, there could be no doubt that I had in fact been graced with a look at a pair of Bald Eagles. The remaining member of the duo eyed me from its perch. It had the characteristic all-white head and white tail that mature representatives of our national emblem sport—it takes Bald Eagles about five years to develop their telltale adult plumage—and when this bird took to the air, it gave me all the views I’d need to be certain of its identity.

The eagles, whose numbers have been steadily increasing after their own DDT-induced nadir several decades ago, quickly disappeared downriver, leaving me with a pounding heart, genuine tears of joy in my eyes, and words of deep thanks for the good saint Patrick and any other source of divinity inclined to dispense avian blessings. The Bald Eagle’s rebound, of course, is another bit of ecological good news, and maybe I’d inadvertently spotted a pair of raptors that had thoughts of building a nursery in the neighborhood. Haliaeetus leucocephalus has nested in the state in recent years—it seems more inclined to raise kids in Connecticut—but it’s most at home in Maine, especially along the coast and the inland lakes.

I’ll keep on the lookout. So, it was obvious, would the Osprey, both of them clearly rattled by the eagles. And for good reason, noted Benjamin Franklin in naysaying the proposal to make H. leucocephalus our national symbol. The Bald Eagle, wrote Franklin in a letter to his daughter, “is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.” 

Even back then Franklin knew that eagles often filched food fished out of the water by other hard-working avian anglers. Their favorite target? The Osprey!

The fish hawks shuddered a bit, perhaps in relief. I smiled, happy to have had the luck of the Irish with me.

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