Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2010-12-04 Local Bald Eagles at Stoney Creek MP

2010-12-04 Local Bald Eagles at Stoney Creek Metro Park!

Judy and I went to Stoney Creek Metro Park today to look for the Bald Eagles reported by park naturalist Mark Szabo on the Michigan birders listserv. (Hey, Mark, please do this more often!) We checked out the northern lake (we parked at Ridgewood and walked down to the lake) and saw more "hoodies" (Hooded Mergansers) than we could count and "ticked off" (birder term for "added") Common Mergansers on my Macomb list for the year. No eagles. We were there about 1 pm when the siren test went off - as well as the birds. It was amazing to see a "skyful" (I just love the sound of this - "skyful") of mergansers. They circled the small north lake about three or four times (hey, that was pretty cool!) before they left - mostly heading toward the main lake. Interestingly we did not ever see them on the main lake although we stopped at most of the access sites. So where did they go? A few "hoodies" returned fairly soon to the northern lake, but what of the rest? Darn birds just go wherever they want! I used to read the Hardy Boys when I was growing up, but at least the author gave hints to allow me a chance to solve the mystery. I guess I need quite a few more decades of experience before I could even begin to solve the bird mystery books.

Flying Mergansers

Flying Mergansers
We checked a few places and finally at Winter Cove saw an eagle flying past the island toward the boat launch. Thinking I saw it in some distant trees, I pulled out the scope. I was wrong - just another "vegetative bird" (that's what I call the impelling shapes in the trees that cause me to think I see something of interest and shoot photos just in case). Just then a "black dot" emerged in the distance past the tree. Finally I got the scope on it. Whew! It's very hard working a scope to see a moving target even without freezing fingers! Eventually I snapped a great mental photo thru the scope - perfect - a Stoney Bald Eagle! Lovely bird! Scopes are great for detail! (I just wish I could plug a  USB connect from my brain to a computer!)
I did get a couple of identifiable regular pics - not great, but you can easily tell it's the mature eagle.

Shortly thereafter, we also saw a large immature Bald Eagle fly right over our heads! I guess this accounts for the second one that Mark reported.

Now it gets more interesting. We stopped at the Shorefishing Parking to see if anything besides the few hundred coots we saw from the road were present. No. Just lots of scattered coots (note that I said scattered). The tree behind the coots is where the Eagle eventually landed. 

Just as we were back at the car with cameras packed and ready to warm up and leave, we saw the eagle fly in to take a few passes at the coots. Wow. Quick! Out of the car, into the trunk. Cameras out. Shoot, shoot, shoot! Recognizing the serendipitous moment and fully knowing it was transient, I just started taking pics. The coots were behind the berm so I had no idea what was happening there, but I just wanted a better shot of the eagle. After several pics, I again hooked up my camera harness and we walked towards the scene. By then most of the action was over. Have y'all ever heard me say "luck"? Yes. Wonderful luck again. I got a decent shot or two of the eagle, and even more interestingly, had the opportunity to watch it harassing the unseen coots. Well, I call it harassing. I suspect the eagle had much more - like a meal - on its mind. Oh, I just wish it had all happened five minutes earlier when we were standing on Shorefishing Point with a clear view of the action.  But maybe our mere presence would have caused it not to happen.  "You never know". And I am so happy that we were privileged to see the eagle in action. What a gift! What luck.

The eagle eventually went off empty-taloned to its "regular tree".

After we reached the road/berm and the eagle had given up after four or five futile passes at the coots, it was quite fascinating to see how the coots had responded!  The previously widely-scattered coots had tightly bunched up. It reminded me of why fish pack together tightly when a predator is in the vicinity.  Maybe a fish-eating killer whale with a wide mouth scoop could claim a gigantic meal, but normally predator fish need to focus on a bite at a time. They especially pick off the wounded ones (hence the importance for fishermen for "working" their lures...)  Clustering protects the flocking/school. Oh how I wish I had seen all of the action! Now I am really curious if the coots (diving ducks by nature) all dove simultaneously (splash!) at the right moment, or if they just were so tightly packed it was unnecessary. Questions - always questions! The end result is fairly obvious.
Bunched up coots

Fascinating wonderful luck.

For those planning to seek out the eagle, its usual location is near the Shorefishing Parking. Walk across the road to the fishing point and look to your left. The eagle likes the tallest first tree at the first point (marsh grasses at base) to the left. Actually this tree is easily visible from the road so it is a quick check. Other than that, go with our hopes for luck.

Besides the coots we also saw a diving "critter" there. We always like to see the rarely seen mammals. They do not have the option of winged flight, but they can sure hold their breath for a long time and pop up somewhere where you least expect them.

I say this like I know something ... Yes it was just luck, however I guess I really DO know something. A couple at Winter Cove pointed out a horizontal branch on a tall tree (about half way to Shorefishing from there) to us as its usual place. You can see the branch above the scattered coot pic. And while we watched the eagle from our vantage before crossing the road at Shorefishing Parking, the Metropark Police officer we had met previously drove by, saw us and pulled over, and told us that this was the eagle's usual hangout. He knew we were looking for the eagle because we had talked with him at Winter Cove earlier.

Cool! Maybe not tri-angulated, but definitely now bi-angulated - and actually pinpointed! We know a specific place and tree! Of course the eagle is just a darn bird, so there will always be a mystery. Will he choose to show himself? Where will he be? Maybe on "his tree"? Maybe at the north lake?

I can tell you this for certainty. You can never catch a fish without your line in the water,  and you can never "tick" a Stoney Creek eagle from your couch!

Thanks to Stoney Creek Naturalist Mark Szabo for his posting! That is why we went today. Also thanks to the Stoney Creek officer for sharing his interest and info about the eagle at Winter Cove and Shorefishing Parking. You guys are what Metroparks are really all about!

Reference map for locations:

I hope you enjoyed my story.  We certainly enjoyed this rare experience!

- "Dr. Bob"