I was born during the heyday of agricultural use of DDT, and didn’t see my first bald eagle until 1994, twenty-two years after DDT was banned.
It was a Sunday in early March, when old snow and bare trees permeated the afternoon with the gray doom of an endless winter, which had weakened but was still in control. We’d been cooped up all weekend and disorder reigned indoors, as if the indeterminate weather had leaked in. Tim went for a walk while I stewed in domestic dissatisfaction.
Before I’d even finished my internal monologue of complaints, Tim ran back. “Come with me!” he said, already bundling the children in their winter gear. “There’s an enormous bird!”
We set out on foot, crossing the West River on the historic covered bridge just upstream from our home. And there it was, perched in a tree on the riverbank: a giant bald eagle, peering down its yellow beak.
“It looks just like the Post Office!” the preschooler said. And she was absolutely right.
We stared up until our necks ached. When we returned home, the disorder remained, but the mood lifted. We were a happy family again.
That my children saw their first bald eagle in the wild at ages three, five and six is the direct result of the ban on dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, the organic compound that led to their near extinction in North America.
I was thirty-eight.
In the 1960’s, when I was a child, it’s estimated that there were just 450 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48. By the 1990s, the population of nesting birds was 45,000. Shortly after our sighting, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, though it’s still a protected bird imperiled by illegal hunters and environmental hazards. Nevertheless, its comeback seems nothing short of miraculous to me, which may explain my current obsession.
There’s a nesting pair a few miles from where I now live, easily visible from a hiking trail through a wetland. I take binoculars to watch them. I bring friends, including Kathy, from Maine, the photographer who took all the photos you see here. And I meet others there, equally enthralled by these giant birds living in a riverside nest in the crook of a dead tree.
Before the surrounding trees leafed out, it was possible to spot the bright white head of the parent-in-charge from a considerable distance. Now, the nest is only visible from directly across the river on the trail. It’s a great view.
The first week, I saw only one bird on the nest, mostly sitting stoically, patiently, and alert. I was never sure which bird I was seeing, the larger female or the smaller male, until one day I saw the changing of the guard. The male flew in; the parents tended to chicks, and then off Mom flew.
It’s shameless anthropomorphism, I know, still, I couldn’t help but remember similarly escaping after what seemed like endless days of caring for children. Back in the day, as soon as Tim walked in the door, I’d give him a brief update and hand the kids off with a breezy, Honey, they’re all yours!
I know there are chicks, because they’re now big enough to see. I’m not sure how many, because I’ve only seen them stick their heads up one at a time. I think they’re two, because they look different: one bigger and paler than the other. But I’m viewing them from a good distance, so mostly what I saw was black beak.
Then last Friday evening, I saw the whole family at home: Mom standing on the edge of the nest; Dad perched on a dead tree nearby. This qualifies as high entertainment when you’re living in place.