The Eagles Return

Or The Eagles’ Return, if you prefer.

By which I mean the eagles have returned from their Brackendale salmon-fest. There’s a lone eagle who surveys its domain from a snag a quarter-mile or so from where I work on Annacis Island, whom I hadn’t seen since early August. It was back yesterday afternoon – I only have 2 one-minute windows as I drive to and from work to spot it, so it may have been home for a while. I haven’t spotted a nest in the area, either, so I don’t know if it’s single, or if this is just its hunting ground.

The nesting pair at my folks’ place on Mayne Island returned a couple of weeks ago, according to my father, one on the Friday before Thanksgiving and the other a couple of days later. They certainly weren’t around the weekend before, when I was there, as the bay was well populated with ducks and seagulls. We see very few waterfowl when the eagles are in residence (OK, seagulls aren’t really waterfowl, but the eagles consider them fair game so they stay away, along with the ducks).

My father has now spent 4 years feeding the eagles that nest in a Douglas Fir near their cabin on Mayne, and has developed quite a bond with them. I suspect they think he’s quite well-trained by now. He and my mother spend 5 days a week there, and time their vacations with the eagles’ annual departure for the salmon run on the mainland. He feeds them salmon or chicken, depending on what’s on sale (I came home from work last week to find a dozen salmon in my freezer because the local Save-On had them on sale for 39 cents a pound). In the spring, when they have young to feed, he makes 4 or 5 trips a day down to the beach. This time of year, when it’s just the two adults on hand, he cuts back to 2 meals a day (3 if they’re really vocal – which is most of the time now). There’s a spot on the rocks below the cabin that is permanently bare of seaweed, sheared clean by their talons as they grab their food and wing back to the nest. It’s fascinating to watch – the eagles perch 30 or 40 feet above the beach, then plummet straight down, wings unfurling as they free-fall. At the last second, they backwing furiously, rotating to a feet-first approach so they can snatch the food in their talons, then glide out across the bay and back, slowly climbing up to their nest, a hundred feet or so above the water.

The eagles recognize my father, and chirp pleadingly whenever they see him. They recognize his car now, and perch in the maple tree above his usual parking spot as he pulls into the driveway. They trust him, The Food Guy, and barely give him time to step back from the feeding spot before plummeting from the trees to claim their prize. If anyone else delivers the food (including my beloved, who is physically very similar to my father – tall, dark, broad-shouldered), the eagles remain on their perches, cocking their heads and peering suspiciously, for 10 or 15 minutes before descending. My father has just enough time to retreat 4 or 5 feet from the food, and is often buffeted by the wind from their wings as they backwing. The rest of us have to be 20 yards away or more before they’ll risk a flying snatch-and-grab off the rocks.

My parents worried for the first couple of years that feeding the resident eagles might put their two cats at risk, but the birds avoid them – they won’t come in for food if the cats are on the rocks nearby. My sister’s black lab, however, they seem to think is an oversized (and not terribly bright) otter, as they regularly try to chase him off his rawhide bone when he’s out on the lawn (eagles are great thieves, and regularly drive herons and otters off their catch).

I figure my father is personally responsible for the lives of at least 2 eagles now. This summer, and 2 years ago, our birds hatched 2 eaglets. This is a relatively common occurrence, but usually the larger eaglet will kill its sibling or drive it from the nest. With my father’s eagles, both young survived each time, due in large part, I suspect, to his regular contributions to their diet. It’s a busy time for all involved, as the young seem to want food on an hourly basis and cry piteously between feedings. The adults aren’t much better, now that they’ve identified their neighbour as an easy mark – they sit in the trees in front of the cabin and set up a great fuss whenever my dad ventures outdoors.

It’s an odd hobby, but it impresses the heck out of visitors, especially those from the Lower 48.