It has been decades since I’ve seen a wild bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in person. A pair of bald eagles began nesting on Berry College Campus in Rome, Georgia within the last 2 years, and a crew set up a camera that sends a live feed of the birds to the internet. (See http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/) Everytime I click on the link, the mother bird is incubating the eggs. I have yet to see the male. I visited the campus the other day, hoping I might see either the male or female in flight. The directions on the campus website stated the nest was between the Steven Cage Athletic Center and the campus entrance, so I parked in front of that building and began triangulating between there and the entrance. I saw the nest and approached. I heard an anxious man’s voice:
“Are you authorized to be there?” the anxious do-gooder asked.
“Are there signs?” I asked, guessing from the tone of his voice that the area must be prohibited.
“Here, here, and here,” the do-gooder smart aleck pronounced, as if I was an idiot unable to see the 3 closely planted signs.
I looked over and saw a small crowd pointing at the eagle’s nest 100 yards from them. I had approached from a different angle–it wasn’t the frontal assault the campus officials expected the enemy to make. The campus folks need to spread their signs out, if they want to keep birders 100 yards away from this nest. Otherwise, their defenses will get outflanked.
The bald eagle’s nest on Berry College campus is at the top of the middle tree in this photo I took. Some day, I will stop being cheap and purchase a telephoto lens.
This is the plaque about 100 yards in front of the eagle’s nest. People aren’t allowed to advance any closer than this to the tree.
Eagle nests are very large, and they are re-used over the bird’s lifespan which can be 30 years. Each year, the birds add more material, and old nests can weigh as much as 4000 pounds. This pair of eagles catch fish and coots from the Oostanaula River and a pond formed by Berry Quarry. The river is about a mile away from the nest, and on the map it looks like a small oxbow lake is adjacent. I wonder why the eagles don’t nest even closer to the river. They supplement their diet of fish with the squirrels, rabbits, and deer carcasses abundantly found on the Berry College Wildlife Management Area. Perhaps the nest is in a central location that gives them access to multiple sources of food.
A view of Lavender Mountain from the Viking Trail on Berry College Campus. This trail is nice for jogging and biking but is botanically uninteresting. It’s a powerline right of way on the edge of pine tree plantation.
Oostanaula River. This is where the bald eagles catch fish. They must have x-ray vision…the water is so muddy I couldn’t see any fish.
Sign telling people how to release any Lake Sturgeon they accidentally catch.
Cute graffiti under the bridge over the Oostanaula River.
I drove to the Oostanaula River to check out the local eagles’ source of food. There has been so much rain in Georgia this past month that all rivers and reservoirs have become muddy from erosion. In the 18th century William Bartram described Georgia’s rivers as pellucid, meaning they were clear as spring water. But farmers stripped the land of trees and replaced the forests with cotton fields, exposing the soil to wind and rain. Lumber companies later destroyed more forests. Today, rampant suburban development has steadily increased the amount of bare soil washed into Georgia’s rivers. Georgia’s waters were not meant to be this muddy.
There were a lot of squirrels and Canadian geese alongside this part of the Oostanaula River. River birch and sycamore are the most common trees, and I saw leaves belonging to overcup and Shumard’s oaks–the trees producing the acorns that help support all the squirrels here. Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) have been re-introduced to the Etowah River. The Oostanaula River joins with the Etowah River to form the Coosa River which flows through Alabama. Apparently, the lake sturgeon have spread to the Oostanaula because there’s a sign here warning fishermen to release them if caught.
Most people mistakenly believe DDT contamination was the cause of the bald eagle’s near extinction, but this is not at all true. Until the 20th century, people shot eagles on sight because they believed they were protecting their livestock. (Early settlers were occasionally astonished to hear pigs squealing in the sky. They wrongly assumed pigs were literally flying…until they looked up and saw an eagle carrying some farmer’s piglet.) And oftentimes, hunters simply shot eagles (and all birds) for the hell of it. The bald eagle population had been decimated long before DDT was ever sprayed. Early American settlers traveling up and down rivers saw eagles almost daily, and natural fish kills attracted dozens of these magnificent birds that came to scavenge. Now, the only nesting eagle in Floyd County, Georgia is on camera where thousands of people follow its every move. How sad.
Is it any wonder why I fantasize about living in a wilderness as it existed before people ruined it? I want to be able to approach an eagle’s nest without some do-gooder fussing at me. I’d like to see a clear river, unmuddied by erosion, where a superabundance of fish are visible. I’d like to be able to catch, keep, and actually eat a lake sturgeon without fear that I was dining on the last one in existence. I hate living in a world where eagles and sturgeon are rare but muddy rivers commonplace.