By Susan Hand Shetterly
On a summer afternoon, I sat down about 100 feet from a pair of bald eagles standing in the low tide on a clump of ledge and seaweed and lifted my binoculars to watch them. Bald eagles are the top avian predators along this coast. They gaff fish by raking their talons into the water and can dispatch a duck as if they were wringing out a dish towel. They’re also good at piracy, as anyone knows who has watched them pressure an osprey into letting go of a fish. What might not be as clear is that we almost lost them. Some towns once paid bounties for their carcasses, decades of development destroyed their nests and nesting habitats, and various contaminants passed from river and lake water to fish, then to the birds, causing fragile egg shells and birth defects.
These eagles where I live are a mated pair. They had an easy comradery as they poked around in the seaweed together, swishing their beaks in the bay’s still water, lifting their talons to clean them with those heavy beaks, fluffing up and sleeking down their feathers. When they unfurled their wings and flew off, they cast two 6½-foot shadows, wingtip to wingtip, across the water.
My town is 37 square miles of land and 15 of water. That’s a lot of frontage on bays and ponds, where these birds like to live. The last census taken here records five pairs of eagles nesting in Surry. We’re smack in the center of eagle territory.
In 1981, the University of Maine hired a beginning biologist named Mark McCullough to work with state biologist Charlie Todd on restoring the bald eagle population. Today, McCullough laughs wryly as he tells me about those first years stocking Down East winter feeding stations with clean carrion for the birds. He opened up the bodies of cows and horses donated by farmers, an occasional moose, and various road kills with a double-bladed axe, so the birds could reach the flesh and entrails, then made himself a blind out of a tarp thrown over a picnic table to observe them. It was physically tough, cold, bloody work, and nobody had ever tried something like it before. But it began to show results more quickly than McCullough or Todd anticipated. When they started, approximately 30 to 60 pairs of eagles nested in Maine. Today, the state is home to at least 800 nesting pairs.
Restoring a native species often means introducing it into altered habitat, which comes with a risk of failure, although biologists know some species will adapt. On this coast, with its depleted fish stocks, eagles have turned to feeding on ducks more than they once did, as well as to decimating young bird populations in summer rookeries of great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and great cormorants. Each spring alewife run takes some pressure off these birds that have become prey, and biologists are now considering how to protect them. Every school of shad, menhaden, and blueback herring helps their chances. Every culvert fixed and dam taken down helps a bit more.
Our eagles still face threats, such as lead bullet fragments found in mammal and bird carcasses that eagles eat in fall and early winter. A lead pellet shard just larger than a mustard seed can kill them. All it takes to protect them is to change to copper ammunition.
Kayaking last summer on Toddy Pond in the early morning, I passed an eagle’s nest built halfway up a white pine. Next to it stood a bird of the year, fully grown, upright, dark chocolate brown. It was beautiful, a heraldic being, vulnerable and fierce.