On The Trail: Nesting eagles, nervous turkeys

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A friend called Saturday to report what he viewed as an unlikely development on a Connecticut River island near his South Deerfield family homestead sitting in the evening shadow of North Sugarloaf.

There, upon an island he has passed daily for more than 60 years, he noticed something high, large and new in a tree. Upon closer inspection, he discovered it was a bald eagles’ nest, a big one in progress. Ever since, he’s monitored it often, watching construction that’ll accept a comfortable spring brood, one or both mates in it at times.

One day, heading toward the nest from Sunderland Bridge in broad daylight, he noticed one of the eagles on the ground picking at something along the perimeter of a turf field. He at first suspected the large, white-headed raptor was eating something, perhaps a rabbit or woodchuck or wild turkey, all distinct possibilities at the location. But, no, the bird wasn’t eating at all, but rather gathering long, dry, brown grass with which to line its woody nest. That he knew when the bird took flight — peregrine falcon nests in the Mount Sugarloaf cliffs above — flying low and carrying a beakful toward the nest. Having never witnessed such a sight, he wondered aloud what his late father would have thought had he seen it. When his dad died unexpectedly at his much-loved Vermont hunting camp more than 40 years ago, there were no eagles or peregrine falcons near his home. Poisons, barnyard snipers and hunters who objected to predators competing with them for small game had taken a mighty toll on our national bird and symbol, not to mention other birds and beasts of prey. You know the mindset: kill my rabbits or turkeys or partridge or raccoons, my barnyard fowl or lambs, or especially my deer and you’re dead, Dude.

Well, times have changed. Eagles, hawks, owls and falcons are now protected, and today all are much more common locally than they ever have been in my lifetime. Predictably, we’re again beginning to hear grumbling objectors complaining about dwindling gamebird, waterfowl and small-game populations that birds of prey are impacting. Yep, now raptors are right up there with coyotes as public enemy No. 1 among some sportsmen who don’t want to hear about the interactive, complementary predator/prey relationship. Fact is that predators makes prey smarter, more cautious and elusive than the same species in habitats minus natural predators. There is much to be read about this interesting topic, which reared its ugly head after Teddy Roosevelt and his big-game-hunter ilk went the route of ridding the West of mountain lions, wolves, bears and coyotes to build deer, moose and elk populations, among others. When all of those predators except resilient coyotes became endangered species, go figure, deer, antelope, elk and mountain goat populations multiplied too fast, ate too much of the forest understory, died of malnutrition and ultimately became easy, open targets for hunters. Look it up if you don’t believe it. It’s current. Hunters with a conscience didn’t want to shoot easy targets grazing out in the open prairie with no fear of danger.

But, let us not digress … back to the eagles’ nest. That and a roundabout return to last week’s topic of eagles preying on wild turkeys, as depicted in a photo published last week from west Northfield. Though I had never thought about eagles hunting turkeys, it made perfect sense. And since that column hit the street, I have had the opportunity to speak with one of my go-to guys about subjects related to birds, wildlife and habitats, all of which he passionately studies in daily observation. That man would be brother-in-law John Twomey, whose book, “Retiring To Not From,” is now in its third printing. A retired UMass professor, the book is about his lifestyle on an expansive, secluded, Waldo County, Maine gentleman’s farm, where he lives a Thoreauvian existence while managing mixed acreage as a wildlife refuge. It has been a hit among back-to-the-earthers and folks seeking a simple, efficient, off-the-grid lifestyle similar to his. Yes, this cerebral man is enjoying what used to be known as “The Good Life,” fashioned by Scott and Helen Nearing, first in Jamaica, Vt., then in Harborside, Maine, where they died and left their Good Life Center for posterity.

The man family and friends call “Buzz” phoned last weekend as he often does to speak to my wife and his sister, and I took the opportunity to inquire what he knew about eagles preying on turkeys. Bingo! A subject he was eager to discuss.

“Oh yes,” was his knee-jerk response on speaker from my wife’s chair. “In fact, my neighbor just called the other day to tell of a bald eagle taking a turkey outside his home. He watched the whole thing play out. It’s getting to be a common sight. We have 58 nesting pairs of eagles here in Maine. If you want to see video go to YouTube and search ‘eagle vs. turkey.’”

He added that he always knows when an eagle is around his slice of nirvana, where turkeys and deer are common sights in the hayfields and lowbush blueberries surrounding his home and outbuildings. He said gobbler flocks are always keenly aware of eagles and great horned owls, two mortal enemies.

“It doesn’t matter how high the eagle is soaring, the turkeys always detect it and display an alarm signal by spreading their tails and running and partially flying to the edge of the woods,” he said. “The eagle can be a speck in the sky and they see it because they are always wary. When I see a group of full-grown toms spread their tails and run and/or fly to the woods edge, I always know there’s an eagle about. Interestingly, I have never seen toms react this way to hawks or ravens.”

He expanded upon his observations by saying hens with young display the same tail spreading and fleeing to the woods (as long as the young are big enough to run well or fly) when a hawk, eagle or sometimes even a raven pass by.

“From what I have observed, the two behaviors appear to be almost identical — the difference being that toms do this in reaction to eagles, and hens with young react this way to eagles as well as hawks and ravens.”

So, there you have it from an astute observer who studies wildlife relationships in his leisure. Plus, having always raised chickens, he’s always tuned-in to birds and beasts of prey.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.