The ultimate American bird: The bald eagle

As with many things in my Cleveland upbringing, bald eagles were just another creature in decline during the 1960s and ’70s. As a teenager, I experienced a couple of ghastly fish kills while heading for a day at the beach on the shore of Lake Erie. Every time I’d look at the embarrassingly polluted Cuyahoga River, I knew I was more likely to see a fire erupt than see a fish.

Eagles, in other words, weren’t expected in the skies over sooty northeastern Ohio. I don’t believe I ever knowingly saw a bald eagle until the early 90s, and I had to go to Alaska to find them. On a business trip to Juneau, a colleague drove me to the edge of town, Mendenhall Glacier. There, soaring above the ice sheet, were an astonishing 27 bald eagles by my count.

I had only a pocket camera with me, and I don’t recall putting any eagle photos in my album. But I remember the day well.

Bald eagles, our national bird, have been making an encouraging comeback. I’m happy to report evidence of that. I saw one flying in the distance south of our first home after we moved back to New Jersey eight or nine years ago.

In the nearly six years we’ve lived in our current home, I’ve seen several eagles flying by, including one sailing over our next-door neighbors’ home while I was on a Zoom call from my COVID-year home office.

One morning as I was filling the bird bath, my neighbor asked if by chance the large bird he had seen on the golf course behind our homes could have been a bald eagle. “Could have been,” I said, and at that moment an eagle flew straight over my house and my head, and flew off into the distance toward Princeton.

I’ve not had the good fortune to have my camera at the ready when those close encounters came, here at home or out at the Mercer Meadows Pole Farm where I spend a lot of my free time and have had a couple of flyovers.

Two bald eagles atop a cell tower, January 2021.

The first photo I managed to get was of a pair of bald eagles perched atop a cellphone tower along Business Route 1, just south of where it feeds traffic back into regular U.S. 1 in Lawrence Township. My wife spotted one of them and insisted we turn around (no small thing in New Jersey, the jughandle state!). It was worth the effort, even if my modest telephoto lens could only get a few distant shots.

Some weeks later at the end of March, I was fortunate to capture an eagle in flight at Colonial Lake, a bit south of the cell tower where I’d spotted the previous birds.

A bald eagle soars above Colonial Lake in Lawrence Township on March 31, 2021.

My best shot, so to speak, came last weekend, when I trudged through Abbott Marshlands, a conservation area that hugs the Delaware River near Trenton. I’d been out on the trails for about 90 minutes with only a few distant frames of ducks in my camera and I was nearly back to the parking lot when I spotted a big bird flapping its wings over the marsh. Figuring it was a bald eagle, I silently said “To heck with the binoculars” and raised my camera.

Here’s the best frame of the bald eagle from near the parking lot at Abbott Marshlands.

The bird was too quick for me to get a decent airborne shot. It landed high in a tree across the marsh. I got some fair distant shots but nothing special. I waited for 10 minutes or so, hoping for a closer look, before deciding to head home.

The park is on a turnoff from where Sewell Avenue dead-ends at a bluff overlooking the marsh. As I drove up out of the park, I stopped my car as I entered Sewell and got out.

My luck held: the eagle was still perched in the same spot, and now I had a closer view.

Here’s the best shot I got of the eagle, oddly enough from the end of Sewell Avenue and not in the Abbott Marshalands just below me.

I’m still in the hunt for better eagle photos, and I should point out that the eagles mentioned in this post so far were all mature birds with the dramatic white heads atop black bodies. I have spotted a few immature bald eagles near Mercer Lake at Mercer County Park, a great gathering spot for bald eagles during the winter. With my new longer lens, I’ll be heading back out there once the colder weather comes.

I’m thrilled that bald eagles are no longer considered endangered or threatened, but I still note that their habitat is forever under assault by the relentless encroachment of human development. May they continue to thrive here in my little corner of the Garden State, up and down the Delaware River Valley, and from sea to shining sea.

Hope for the future: An immature bald eagle soars over Mercer Lake.

Published by Dan

University media executive by day, blogger by night, I am a well-traveled resident of New Jersey

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