Winter Eagles over Columbus
“Oh, I see that you have binoculars. Are you a bird watcher?”, asked the woman walking her dog down the snowy path in a Gahanna park.
“Yes, but it's been kind of a slow morning today, what with the deep snow and cold”, I replied.
“Well”, she continued with a little tinge of excitement, “My friends who live up the street near the park swear they saw a Bald Eagle right there along the Creek 2 days ago. Isn't that rare? Should they call the ODNR or something?”
Quickly ask yourself, how many times have you run into a non-birder who's first question was about eagles? The driver passing you at Greenlawn; the fishermen you run into at Hoover; the hikers who pass you at Highbanks. More and more, eagles have come to be the Bird to be watched for, as far as the public is concerned. Part of this is their charismatic nature as big, self-assured predators, but part of it is the public perception that they are still rare and threatened. Anytime they're seen, this reasoning goes, we're seeing some vestige of wild Ohio accidentally dropped into urban Columbus. This second perception may be out-of-date, both for Columbus and for eagles.
For such Big Bold Birds, it's funny how quickly they've crept up on us. Eagles have been ubiquitous up around the Western basin of Lake Erie for several decades now, so seeing one up there was taken for granted. Here around Columbus, Eagles were an exotic rarity, even in winter, as recently as 8-10 years ago. Bald Eagles nested regularly at Delaware Reservoir for over a decade. Then 6-7 years ago, Eagles started to become a regular fixture at Hoover Reservoir, probably attracted by the large numbers of cold-stunned shad and the waterfowl that massed to take advantage of them. Then they gradually spread to Alum Lake and the Alum Creek drainage, even building a nest along that creek near Polaris. Unfortunately, that nest was eventually abandoned. Another unsuccessful nesting was along O'Shaughnessy reservoir at Twin Lakes Park, north of Dublin. Finally, in the last 3 years, we started getting reports of them along the Scioto and Olentangy in urban Columbus. The capper was Jim McCormac's discovery of a nest at Anderson Quarry just downstream of Scioto Audubon Park 2 years ago on the Columbus Christmas Bird Count. This year, we expected them on the CBC and weren't disappointed. Four different teams found them, including a team in Gahanna right near where that woman's friend had seen one. I didn't even comment on them in my CBC compilers report, that's how unexceptional I considered the sightings.
Really, though, it has taken an exceptional confluence of events. First the habitat had to be there. Most of our major rivers and streams now have corridors of mature forest, either as suburban parks, MetroParks, or conservation easements spurred on by the Greenways plan. The big reservoirs are also well-forested, with much of their shoreline treed or in parks. They also have lots of fish and wintering waterfowl, complements of careful management. This all makes for good eagle winter habitat. Second, the birds had to change. For the longest time, Eagles and Humans didn't mix well in the midwest. Between pollution, habitat destruction and the occasional shooting (accidental or otherwise), the only eagles that survived here were birds that were very wary of humans. Part of their appeal was this wariness; if you saw an eagle back then, you were very lucky. After so many years of selecting for wary eagles, it's been a bit of a pleasant surprise to see so many less wary, human-tolerant birds reappear once we made ourselves behave better. Of course, the pendulum could swing too far; if the birds start taking people's pet koi or small dogs, they might need to become wary again very quickly!
Where can you go to reliably see Bald Eagles in Columbus? Well, almost any large body of water now hosts 1 or more. Hoover Reservoir still remains the best choice because there are now 5-6 birds spending the winter there. In January, when ice cloaks much of the northern reservoir, especially look around the ice shelf/open water interface in the middle or southerly reaches of the reservoir. The open water patches there often contain the fish or waterfowl that these eagles are interested in; many times you can see their big hulking shapes sitting on the ice near these edges. If not, check the tallest trees for their big silhouettes. Other reliable spots include Alum Lake (particularly off the Hollenback marina or SummerRidge Access areas) and Scioto Audubon & Berliner Parks (especially below the dam if the river above the dam is frozen).
Many of our urban river greenways, however, are also starting to attract eagles. The Gahanna bird is likely the same one that has been reported from along Big Walnut Creek from Hoover dam south through the Little Turtle and the Cherrybottom neighborhoods. 1-2 birds have been quite regular now along the Scioto River in Dublin, from Kiwanis Park north through O'Shaughnessy dam; they can often be seen in the trees within the first half mile below the dam. Another 1-2 birds have been frequenting Blacklick Creek between Pickerington and Groveport. Earlier in the Fall, they were roosting in the dead snags in Cruiser Pond in Cruiser Park in Groveport, but recently they've been seen in a variety of locations around or near the creek, including Pickerington Ponds. Eagles have also been observed along Alum Creek beween the Easton Area and Polaris, perhaps the same birds that tried to nest hereabouts earlier.
In any event, eagles seem here to stay, so you better start polishing up your responses to eagle questions. Really, it's an excellent entry to get people talking and thinking about birds and wildlife. When an eagle settles into an area, it's like a natural stamp of approval for the ongoing habitat preservation and restoration efforts in that area. That's a great thing to highlight, and we shouldn't waste the opportunity or the analogy.
Have you seen an eagle today?