Strictly speaking, the eagle in our story never really “landed.” I just really like that phrase. More like, a climber carefully scooped him out of his nest up high in a tree, tucked him in a rucksack, and lowered him down to the ground where the other researcher was waiting to take speedy measurements and samples. I guess you could technically say he landed, if you like. With help, though.
The experiences I’m fortunate to have on the job while not really on the job still amaze me.
Last week I lucked out with a bird nerd VIP pass and accompanied two grad student researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Arizona. They were visiting an eagle’s nest on my company’s property, which they’ve been researching for many years as part of their gig across the UP and Great Lakes area. Their research project helps assess the Great Lakes Basin for contaminants like DDT and all its derivatives that were banned back in the 70s, and to learn how the environment is recovering from them. Since these chemicals tend to accumulate in fish, and since eagles happen to love sushi, our feathered friends make the best biomonitors for environmental health.
I got little-kid excited when our environmental manager emailed to inform me that the researchers would be onsite the next day, and would I like to tag along? You betcha! I was fortunate enough to hang out with them last year, and to watch a guy old enough to be my father (who was pulled out of retirement for the performance) scramble up a huge white pine faster than I can snatch the last piece of chocolate out of my co-worker Sandy’s candy bowl when no one is looking. The only problem was, last year the eaglet in the nest had grown too big for his britches, and, worried that he may try to bail out of the nest before he could actually fly, we had to abort last year’s mission.
I hoped that this year we’d have better luck, because having a front row seat to an eagle banding and research session with no eaglets is like having really good concert seats, but the band never shows up.
We met our two researchers, Rachel and Ari, and led them out to the nest, which was a short walk from a road on fairly flat terrain. I was relieved for the easy hike, mainly because the backpack that Ari was carrying with all of her rappelling gear looked to weigh more than she did.
We knew we were near the nest when we glanced around and saw ferns covered with bird poop whitewash and an occasional unidentified animal bone, fish skeleton, or deer leg scattered nearby.
Even though I knew I was in the “drop zone,” I couldn’t resist a peek 75 feet straight up to gape at the massive pine tree topped with a ginormous nest. Then I heard music to my ears: the sound of a very pissed off eaglet who was whistling and piping and basically ratting us out to Mom and Dad, who were probably nearby.
Let the Eagles concert begin!
Even though the five of us bystanders had front row seats, we were smart enough to keep our safety glasses on and to stay back from the drop zone. No one wanted a poke in the eye by a falling branch, or to get crop-dusted by eagle poop! Watching Ari climb to the top of the nest was sort of like watching the opening band for the headliner: new and interesting at the beginning, a few “OMG, how is she going to get around that huge branch” thriller moments, but ultimately, you came to see the eagles perform.
But snap, when she dangled off a large branch at the top in order to climb around and onto the ledge of the nest, I think my heart almost stopped. I truly admired her spunk and fortitude. After all, she would remain 75 feet up in that tree until any eaglets were captured, lowered down to the ground, banded, and then returned up to the nest.
When Ari arrived at the nest, she called down the happy news. She had discovered not one, not two, but three eaglets! The norm is usually a single eaglet or occasionally two, but kudos to the eagle parents. The researchers believe that this pair have been established here for decades, and since typically an eagle in the wild may live 20-30 years, I figured they had lots of time to practice making eaglets.
Before we got up close and personal with an eaglet, though, we were treated to a little side show when Mom and Dad showed up and chewed us out for bothering their kids. At first they perched in a nearby tree and loudly protested our presence. Then they took to the air and circled the nest, maybe marveling at the crazy woman dangling from a tall tree, thinking they had their own front row seat to a spectacle should she fall.
No such luck for the eagles. With great aplomb, Ari scooped up the nearest eaglet into the rucksack. His siblings, however, caught on pretty quickly, and both of them ventured out onto a branch outside the nest. Not wanting to witness any kamikaze moves from the siblings, Ari and Rachel decided that banding a single eaglet was fine.
For some reason, the rest of the process reminded me of those alien abduction stories you read about in the tabloids. “So there I was with my brother and sister, just sitting in the nest and minding my own business, when this alien showed up, snatched me, stuffed me into a sack, and then brought me to this place where they performed all these weird experiments on me!”
“Whoa! Tell me everything!”
“Well, after they lowered me to the ground and one alien took me out of the bag, I tried to chomp her finger. She didn’t seem to be bothered by it and smiled to the group, ‘We’ve got a biter!’ There was another lunatic alien taking a video of the entire thing, and when they figured out that I was a boy, she kept calling me Bob.”
“Then what happened?”
“When I was still in the bag, the aliens weighed me. That’s how they knew I was a male, because we’re smaller than females. After she measured my talons, the alien put a metal bracelet around my leg, and I’ll bet my brother and sister will tease me about it. Then she plucked a feather out of my breast, measured my beak, and lastly, she took a blood sample.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t even the worst part! So when the alien started all the tests, she covered my head with a hat and said it would help to keep me calm. I heard one of the other aliens asking whether it was a Green Bay Packers hat, and then joked that I wouldn’t approve because obviously I was an Eagles fan. I’m not sure which was worse: the blood sample or the joke.”
“Then she stuffed me back into the sack, and they lifted me back up into the nest. The whole thing took less than 15 minutes, but it was so humiliating having my brother and sister see me floundering out of this sack with a grinning alien perched behind me. Plus, Mom and Dad saw the whole thing, too. What are the kids at school gonna say?”
“Maybe you could sell your story to the tabloids, and they could make it into a movie, and then you’d be rich. Hey, looks like your mom and dad just brought you some sushi. Talk to you later.”
For those of you who are interested in learning more about the research program at the University of Maryland’s Environmental Science & Technology department, click here.
If you’d like to see a video (eight and a half minutes long) of the banding and measurement process, click here.
Yes, I’ll admit that I was the one who named our Eaglet “Bob.” So sue me. He sure was a cute little devil.
Be happy, be well, and may you soar with eagles.