Where eagles dare

It's the July 4th weekend, and America's symbol is busy at Seattle's Seward Park.
Crosscut archive image.

As of June 2007, the U.S. government no longer considers bald eagles a threatened species. This image shows how the eagle got into trouble in the first place. Among other threats, they were once considered to be pests by farmers. This young bald eagle, its head not yet turned white, was shot by three Snohomish County hunters in the 1890s. Weirdly, in death, the bird's stretched wings mimic, or mock, the Great Seal of the United States. The crossed rifles in front give the image the feeling of a military tableaux. The eagle hunters seem serious, except for the one on the left who smirks. They've done their duty for the day, ridding the sky of raptors. (Photo: U.P. Hadley)

It's the July 4th weekend, and America's symbol is busy at Seattle's Seward Park.

Andrews Bay off Seward Park was filling up with boats for the July 4th weekend. On Thursday morning, I counted five anchored boats getting an early start. By Friday morning, there were five times that number. It helps that the sky was blue and the temperature warm (nearly 70 at 7:30 am) and the marine forecast as mild as it gets.

While humans walked the park and a few fishermen got an early start, the tall Doug firs along Seward's perimeter were alive with eagles. With all the sprawl and loss of wildlife habitat in the Puget Sound lowlands, it's amazing how some species have thrived, eagles among them. Statewide, in 1980, there were only 104 breeding pairs of them in the whole state, thanks to DDT and development.

In the past 30 years, they've made an amazing recovery. The State Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are now over 840 occupied nests in the state. Nesting sites in the Puget Sound lowlands have been re-occupied, most of those on private land. The resident bald eagle population here has probably come close to maxing out. They say, without further habitat loss, the state's resident population could stabilize at around 6,000.

Eagles like the land that humans like: perches near water where they have a great view. As I walked the shore trail, I could hear an eagle talking in a tree overhead, at times sounding like a pleading seagull. In a shallow bay often filled with ducks and turtles, I could see fish surfacing to nibble at insects landing on the water, like an aquarium at feeding time. The eagle was watching, waiting for a moment to strike and I only saw it when it left its tree and swooped down to the surface.

I don't know if the eagle was successful because bushes blocked my view, but a couple of weeks ago while walking in the old-growth woods at Seward I saw an eagle sitting high in the canopy in the branch of a tall maple, hunched over a fish it was devouring while fending off crows. I have seen eagles here catch fish and soot-black coots, birds that form a protective circle and flap their wings to ward off the predator. The diving ducks are often too quick for eagles; coots seem to defend themselves more like a circled-up wagon train fending off an attack. The loss of a couple is the price they pay for the rest escaping.

Further on, a juvenile bald with brown head and speckled breast sat at the tip-top of a tall snag near the water, like an eagle on a flagpole. I ran into a woman walking her dogs who told me that she'd been throwing a tennis ball into the lake for her dogs to fetch at another park (yes, that's illegal, but many Seattle dog owners do it anyway). She said a juvenile bald eagle had swooped down out of nowhere and tried to grab the ball. It missed. Even eagles have to learn how to be eagles.

Very close by, near the top of a tall fir, I could hear crows harassing something in the high branches, an almost certain sign of an eagle. As I came around the point, I could finally get a view with my binoculars.

Way up sat a mature eagle, partly in shadow. But when the morning sun in a cloudless sky caught him, his white head seemed like a beacon. His bright yellow beak was lined with a thick shadow that outlined his classic features almost cartoonishly. The white was too white, the yellow too yellow, the curve of the beak almost like the exaggerated mustache of a vaudeville villain. He looks like one of those bad bald eagle carvings you sometimes see along rural roads, chainsawed and over-painted by an enthusiastic craftsman. A huge eye gleamed in the sun, an orb that seemed illuminated from within, about to pop out of his head.

Who needs fireworks?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.