Soaring eagles

Becky Vargo • Feb 15, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Areas of open water from the recent thaw are part of the reason eagle sightings have increased in the Tri-Cities area recently, said Ottawa County Parks naturalist Curtis Dykstra.

Since mid-January, as many as nine American bald eagles have been spotted along the Grand River, on Spring Lake and out toward Lake Michigan. 

Some are resident eagles that live here year-round, Dykstra said. Others are migrating from farther north, where freezing temperatures have closed up water holes, which are the large birds’ food source.

“It’s when the open water is concentrated in small areas that we’ll see more eagles,” Dykstra explained.

Even the resident eagles had to move to better hunting areas during the recent cold snap, the naturalist said.

“Now that things are thawed out, they’re back,” he said.

Pigeon Lake in Port Sheldon Township also recently opened up on the west end, Dykstra said. “There are tons of ducks and eagles, too.”

How do birds survive the cold?

Dykstra said birds find shelter and eat a lot of food during the winter. Some birds even go into a mini-hibernation overnight.

“The birds are at the feeders (at the Hemlock Crossing Nature Center) a lot,” Dykstra said. “Even the Cooper’s hawk is coming in. They get hungry, too.”

Dykstra said bird feathers are great insulators. When you see a bird fluffed up, it’s not because it ate a lot. It’s because the bird is trapping air between the layers of feathers to keep warm.

The naturalist said the birds also have special circulation for their feet.

Still, with a long, cold snap, there’s going to be some mortality, Dykstra said. The weaker ones and the ones who can’t find enough to eat will be the most susceptible.

“It’s just that much more important to feed the birds during those times,” he noted.

Winter birding

Bald eagles, snowy owls and all kinds of waterfowl are what most winter birders are seeking, Dykstra said, adding that the snowy owls seem to have moved completely out of West Michigan. 

“They’re even gone from the Muskegon wastewater plant,” he said.

Raptor watch

By March, the northern population starts to head back to home territory. That’s when birders will gather at the Straits of Mackinac for the annual Raptor Watch (www.mackinacraptorwatch.org). Dykstra said visitors will see everything from bald eagles and golden eagles to hawks and owls.

Owl banding and counts are done at that time. 

Ottawa County birding programs can be found at www.miottawa.org/EventRegistration/loadCalendar.action.

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