Lake Minchumina — “EEE-AAAH-EH!”
Spinning around at the sound of the ear-peircing scream behind me, I cringed before an angry diving bald eagle, its savage yellow gaze locked onto mine. At the last instant it wheeled upward, winging swiftly to the steep hillside to perch atop a tall tree.
A hundred yards away, an immature eaglet perched on the edge of a five-foot wide nest of sticks wedged onto the blunted pinnacle of a towering spruce. Barely visible, the head of a second one peeked above the nest’s protective rim.
Back in September 2013 we first noticed a change in the big broken-topped spruce growing near the bottom of a steep hillside immediately above the silt flats
“That’s not a nest, is it?” we asked each other. Surely no large bird would nest right where we walked several times per week en route to our boat landing. Especially not just a half mile from our home, with its noisy collection of sled dogs, banging horse bells, chain saw, water pump, generator, mowers and tillers, and what nots. But eventually the sight of an eagle winging to the tree carrying a large stick in its gnarly yellow talons confirmed our suspicions. In spite of our frequent passing, often accompanied by a small pack of free-ranging sled dogs, the pair invested in a summer home there.
Although eagles had nested off and on a couple miles from our house, we carefully avoided that area during critical nesting periods. But they knew we lived here when they moved in, and as we pursued daily Bush life, avoiding this new site proved impossible. In spite of our near-constant presence, the handsome white-headed pair raised a couple chicks in 2014, and this past summer two more graced the burly nest.
Early in the season they left us alone, but after the eggs hatched and especially when the little ones began peeking over the rim of the nest, the adults’ protectiveness increased. No longer satisfied with glaring from a nearby treetop or soaring suspiciously overhead, they escalated the intensity of their attacks.
“It’s just me,” I always assured them, but that didn’t help much.
Anytime I neared their family home, a sharp-eyed eagle wheeled in my direction, a series of long shrill calls alerting the distant mate before repeatedly diving the ranging dogs. Occasionally, it broke off to swoop angrily at me, powerfully graceful with its impressive wingspan (“80-inch,” the bird book informed us). Although never actually making contact, it had a disconcerting habit of diving silently and unseen from behind only to break off with a goose-bump-raising scream just a few feet away.
Ducks don’t incubate their eggs until the last one is laid, resulting in all hatching on the same day, ready to toddle off to the nearest stream to rustle for their own food. Eagles, though, incubate from day one, so one nestling hatches first. Being older and stronger provides a big advantage, with that first chance at food supporting faster growth and increased strength. This sad adaptation ensures that during poor hunting at least one eaglet survives even if the other fades away altogether.
By late July, one eaglet always perched atop the edge of the nest to peer down at us passing by. Sometimes I spied the head of the second, but only rarely did it perch up with its sibling. Sometimes days went by without seeing the smaller one, but every time we gave it up for lost, its head peeped up over the rim again.
Eagles may make amusing neighbors, but they do have disconcerting habits. They frequently perch in the tall cottonwood overlooking our chicken pen. Because bald eagles have been known to carry away small family pets, we were glad the two pups we raised this year had been born in January and now weighed 50 or 60 pounds.
Unlike golden eagles who remain primarily above treeline to catch ground squirrels and other small-mammals, bald eagles feed primarily on fish. They show up as early as March, when the mouth of the river draining the lake reliably opens up to allow hunting of their favorite prey, and linger until freeze-up in October
Occasionally after snagging a fish, an eagle fails to liftoff, probably when its prey proves too big to carry. Because their powerful talons have a reflexive locking mechanism they can’t let go, instead flopping clumsily ashore, fish in tow. A dead mature eagle we found years ago washed up on the beach of the lake may have drowned after making a catch too big or too far from land.
By late this August one or both eaglets always stood high on the rim of the nest as we passed. On Sept. 2, as I walked along a trail through the woods behind and uphill from the nest, I listened to both youngsters sounding more agitated that usual as they hollered “Wee-eep! Wee-eep!”
Shortly after I passed the nest, a large dark shape swung past a hundred feet out from me, sweeping up to land, tottering, atop a dead birch tree: first flight, witnessed. The remaining eaglet continued shrieking piteously, but just a couple days later both of the dark youngsters flew across the mud flats, stretching and strengthening their new wings. Their heads and tails would not achieve the white grandeur of a full adult until age four.
Within a few days the small family moved away from their intrusive neighbors, and although we frequently saw the now-benign adults, our daily walks seemed somehow lacking without the loud “Wee-eep! Wee-eep!” of the youngsters, or the frequent attacks of their parents.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.