On a windy morning a few days ago I was walking my dog in our suburban Maryland neighborhood and a rapid movement caught my eye. I looked up to see an adult bald eagle swoop low over the roof of a neighbor’s house. It is not unusual to see an eagle in our neighborhood, but typically I see these great birds circling high in the blue sky. The bird that I saw this morning was at treetop level — up close and personal!
An eagle in flight is majestic — the wingspread of a mature individual can be ninety inches. Whereas young eagles are nondescript and often scruffy-looking, the adult is striking — a solid chocolate brown with a snow-white head and tail, and yolk-yellow feet and bill. It is perhaps the most handsome large raptor on earth. On this morning I was stunned by the great wingspan and the powerful strokes of its long wings as the bird headed in the direction of the Potomac, just below our neighborhood.
A couple of days later, I walked through the falling snow down to the river, headed to a spot on the C&O Canal towpath where I could scan across the river to the great stick nest in which bald eagles have been nesting since 2003. The nest is situated high in a big sycamore right on the bank of the Virginia side of the river near the Snake Island dam, a couple of hundred yards upstream from pitcher Max Scherzer’s secluded home. I pointed my telescope onto the tree and I spied a single adult bird perched on a branch to the right of the nest — the bird’s shoulders with white epaulettes of fresh snow.
Once I was back home, I went online to check on the status of the famous bald eagle nest in the National Arboretum — the nest tended by Mr. President and The First Lady. And there they were, featured in stills from the eagle-cam, at the nest. No eggs yet in the nest, but the structure had been properly refurbished for the year. Welcome to the start of the eagle breeding season, snow and all! Whereas most songbirds, such as northern cardinal and American robin, make their nests in March and April, big predatory birds such as owls and eagles nest very early in the calendar year. Experts say that early laying allows the nestling eaglets to be at a stage of growth when they can best take advantage of the abundance of a diet of vertebrate prey — a veritable feast at the height of spring (it’s the early bird that catches the worm).
Being a naturalist, I treasure the notion of living within a twenty-minute walk of an active eagle nest. As a bird-watching kid growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, the only time I ever saw an eagle was on a field trip organized by the local bird club to the mouth of the Susquehanna River, near Havre de Grace, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from my home. I strained to see the distant soaring bird with my clunky old binoculars. Now I see eagles on a monthly basis in my own neighborhood, binoculars not needed. Part of the difference is I now live along a great East Coast river — the Potomac. But also, the decades-long recovery efforts of federal and state programs have brought back the bald eagle from its brush with extinction in the early 1960s. Don’t believe the nay-sayers who tell you the Endangered Species Act does not work.
Having eagles nesting along the Potomac as well as in the National Arboretum enriches the environment of our nation’s capital. It always gives me a little shiver to catch sight of one of those big birds, making me think that, but for the foresight and dedication of a few courageous conservation heroes, this bird could have just faded from existence in the Lower 48, with only a remnant population confined to the wilds of northern Canada and Alaska. Wouldn’t that have been a shame?
Here in the DC area, where our federal government’s official symbols are permeated with likenesses of bald eagles, it is comforting to know that living, breathing, and hunting eagles are all around us, and that is, in large part, because of the beneficence of our government’s actions on behalf of nature and wildlife. After four woeful years, I am hopeful our new leaders will point the way towards better protection of eagles, wolves, and the natural habitats that support them — species and places whose very existence bring us pleasure.
There’s just one thing… It’s the name “bald eagle.” Nobody, man, woman, or bird, wants to be known as bald (think George Costanza). And of course the bird itself is not bald. There indeed are bald birds — vultures, condors, and some storks, among others, but eagles are not among them. Our great eagle is resplendent in its white hood of glossy contour feathers, set off from its uniformly dark body and wings. The great white head and white tail can be seen from a great distance, making identification a cinch.
There is one other distinction for this great bird. Its range almost exactly encompasses the extent of North America — Alaska, Canada, and the Lower 48. This is a uniquely American species. Its name should reflect this. I suggest we upgrade the formal name of this important symbol to “American Eagle” — a more appropriate and more accurate appellation. It would be the right thing to do.
Bruce Beehler is a local naturalist and author of 12 books, including “Natural Encounters,” and “Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia.”