Yes, Christmas will always be bald and white for me with regard to one definition of those terms at this point in my life, but this particular Christmas we were treated to other, more fun benefactors of those descriptors – a snowy Christmas eve yielded a white Christmas morning, and we got quite a show by some local nesting bald eagles.
These are presumably the same birds that have been nesting at this site for the past few years not far from my parent’s house in PA (see my post from last year here). It’s great to see them still successfully using this nest as it is more exposed and closer to human activity than most nests. This is actually a GOOD thing, as it indicates that most of the other more ideal nesting spots and territories around the Susquehanna River are already taken by breeding pairs.
The snow also allowed us to see who was using the landscape … snow tracks! It’s far from wilderness here, but this beautiful agricultural area still has quite a bit of wildlife that manages to survive in an area that continues to have more and more human development replace farms and forests. We were still able to find the tracks in the nearly melted snow of white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, and two red fox – and ultimately I was able to find what I think is the red fox den! A couple of red-tailed hawks were hunting in the cold air above us, and we spooked a coopers hawk with a meal from its perch in a grove of fir trees.
Last week before I left Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to get out in the field with Brian Bedrosian, who is the Avian Program Director at Craighead-Beringia South. The task at hand was to catch a bald eagle, the last push to get the final of six transmitters attached to local bald eagles in the Upper Green River / New Fork River drainages, for a research project that is studying the effects of local energy extraction development on wildlife (aka gas wells aka fracking sights). For more on the details, see here.
We spent 10 hours on the New Fork River on Wednesday, rowing down the low and slow water with Chief, Brian’s dog, directing us.
To the East are the jagged peaks of the Windy Mountain Range, poking above the horizon eerily in the forest fire haze, and they look similar to the drastic edges and slopes found in the Teton Range. Meandering back and forth through the dry high-desert landscape is the New Fork River, a lush riparian zone that is home to many plants and animals, and a literal oasis.Everywhere else around us, as far as the eye can see, are sage-covered hills, slopes and small mesas – a sight which resembles a snapshot from the ocean, just beyond the breakers where the surface of the water is starting to peak and trough into rolling, moving hills of water.
And, also as far as the eye can see, are natural gas extraction pads. So it is that this area is the center of much debate and ecological concern.
We went through three separate bald eagle nesting areas during the float, using a trapping technique called a “float fish.” As we approached a nesting site, and there were eagles perched, we placed in the water upstream of us one or two of the float fish traps, then paddled quickly downstream ahead of them. These traps are essentially fresh-caught trout that have been modified with nooses of fishing wire and attached to a floating log with a few feet between the two. The concept is that when the eagle grabs the fish, the nooses secure around the eagle’s talons. The log is light enough that the bird can fly or swim safely to shore while we make our way back to grab it. Unfortunately the day yielded no results for our primary purpose (bald eagles trapped = 0), but it was a beautiful day to spend on a river. When your “work” entails floating and paddling down a river in August in Wyoming, life is good.
The next morning, we took a different tactic and instead of floating down the river, we selected two known bald eagle perch sites that were accessible by foot. We readied traps early in the morning – with Trapper Haynam joining us, also from Craighead-Beringia South – and before sunrise set them floating in the river below two separate eagle perch sites. After setting the traps we monitored them from not far away, above the river banks.
We then prepared for a long wait.
Suddenly, at 6:20 am, not 20 minutes after we had climbed back up the steep banks of the river to wait in the truck, an adult bald eagle soared over the fish and landed right by it! It seemed to toy with the fish and our emotions for a few moments, then after some careful scrutiny it took off. We hadn’t fooled it. Shortly thereafter a juvenile bald eagle came and circled above the fish a few times, then it was chased off by the resident adults who then perched upstream. It did not look promising.
Now the real waiting began. We had no eagle action after the initial excitement, but we did have several bull moose move through the area, including one who seemed to walk directly over the fish trap. I was worried that maybe we suddenly discovered a mutant carnivorous zombie moose and that we would have to free it from the fishing cord after it tried to eat our fish, but luckily it was the regular non-zombie, plant eating variety.
We decided that our setup was probably not going to attract any further attention from the eagle family, so we retrieved the trap and went to meet up with the rest of our crew at the other trap site that seemed to still hold some promise. The eagles hadn’t seen the fish yet but were in the area, and they had two of their young in the trees around them begging for food. My time there was limited as I had a long drive to do before the day was over, and just as I was about to leave for my drive back to California, we got one!
A hatch year bald eagle went for the fish, and although an adult was the preferred target, it could still be tagged for the study. Things happened VERY fast. We were posted up on a bluff above the river to monitor the trap, so when the bird hit it, we immediately drove down to the river bank, jumped out and ran to get close to it, before approaching the last bit of distance slowly and carefully. First priority was safety of the bird and us, and we didn’t want to create more stress than it was already experiencing. Brian handled it with amazing skill and professionalism. It had grabbed the fish, then when it realized it was caught, it flew/walked/swam over to a gravel bar in the shallow river where it was sitting when we got there.
To minimize stress (for the bird and us!), a falconers hood is placed over the head of the bird. This is also a common technique used in bird rescue and rehabilitation, and during exams of captive birds, because most birds tend to go into a hypnotized state of calm once the hood is over its eyes. The exam and attachment of the transmitter went quickly and smoothly.
After feeding the eagle some trout and giving it some water to be sure it was hydrated after its ordeal, we released the eagle back onto the river. After the hood was removed and it was placed on the ground, it took a few seconds for it to get its bearings, then it flapped its gigantic wings and turned east, getting over a fence and landing in a stand of trees upriver. Mission accomplished.
I must say that I had a lot of mixed feelings about capturing the bird, and about putting a transmitter on it, as the device is attached by strapping it around its body, and it sits on its back like a very small backpack. I find some solace in knowing that professionals like Brian are executing trapping like this in a professional manner and minimizing stress for the birds, and that these birds are participating in studies that could help the lives of many of their kind in the future. Your sacrifice does not go unnoticed.
The visual and auditory impact alone of the gas pads is tremendous on the landscape. The night that we slept there amid them all on BLM land near the river, the remote area looked like it was covered with lots of small towns due to the number of lights. It wasn’t until morning that I realized most of these “towns” were drilling pads, with a few ranches interspersed. During the night, loud explosions occurred with regularity. Many people in the area believe that these extraction processes could be poisoning their air and water. The ethics and methods surrounding energy extraction are hot topics right now, and the long-term impacts on humans and the greater ecosystem have yet to be determined – but I know that I am certainly concerned. Nothing comes without a cost. I urge everyone to educate themselves about this issue and the next time you fill up your gas tank or turn on your stove, take a second to think about where your energy is coming from. And be thankful for it.
Good luck my eagle friend, I look forward to thinking of you and your kind flying free over clean waters for many generations to come.