© R T Wallen, 2018
That got old. Frequent adverse weather and strong tidal currents created hardship, especially in winter when super-cold Taku winds pouring off the Juneau Icecap whipped things up. Eventually a small ferry brought some relief. Then, in 1935 a steel girder bridge was built, connecting island with mainland. Not to be overlooked, two wooden towers supported power lines spanning the channel just west of the bridge. This gets us to the topic of the story.
It was thought by most Douglas Island residents that the reason for the towers and power lines was to deliver electricity to the island. But resident eagles quickly realized that their actual and primary purpose lay in providing fishing platforms for themselves. Here, atop the towers 110 feet above high tide, eagle real estate appeared like magic where none had existed before. Pilings that could be gripped with talons, easy-on, easy-off perches with no troublesome intervening branches, an ocean view from on high; What was not to like? Location, location, location! From these advantageous perches an eagle looked down on and ambushed any passing salmon or any other kind of fish foolish enough or unfortunate enough to be at or near the surface within the scope of EAGLEVISION.
A certain pair of eagles, which I’ll call the Power Tower Pair, had already set up housekeeping with a nest in a tree nearby on Douglas Island. Their uninterrupted view: water. Then one day, a bridge and towers appeared. It didn’t take the pair long to recognize the fortuitous opportunity in their front yard. Any other eagles with similar real estate canny and notions to usurp the towers had the Power Tower Pair to contend with. They maintained their claim against all contenders. Mighty aerial battles took place around the bridge. The Power Pair insisted on ownership and fishing rights. They regarded the towers as reserved and private.
Who knows the entire history? We can assume that ownership battles went on over the years, some of them witnessed from the bridge. (Our national bird can be quarrelsome and contentious). Eagles are fairly long-lived as birds go, but as old reigns ended, subsequent pairs asserted ownership of the towers. Always there were eagles to see from the bridge. That is until 1981 when a newer, wider, more modern bridge was built. At that time, the original bridge became the “Old Bridge” until it got dismantled when the new one was operational.
Along with the new bridge, stronger and more durable steel power towers, were built and readied to be installed, while the old wooden towers were scheduled for tear-down. This, I thought, will be the end of a unique Juneau experience. Eagles can perch on metal structures (they’ve taken to perching on Juneau’s new bronze whale sculpture, for example, which, like the towers is high and conveniently located for fish-spotting), but they would be on metal, no longer on the more desirable wooden pilings, and they would be close to the high power wires. The pilings on the original poles kept the eagles some distance from the wires as can be seen in the photo. Plus, though eagles can manage on metal, it doesn’t offer the reliable grip that wood affords, especially in wind.
But here’s the fact. Even though the towers provided ideal fishing platforms, and as jealously as they were defended, losing them would not unduly inconvenience the Tower Eagles. Such pairs had gotten along just fine before the advent of mid-channel towers. They could resort to using their old standbys—trees. Forests march down the mountains that border Gastinau Channel, with lofty trees on both sides all up and down the fjord. Southeast Alaska eagles had used them for a long time, at least since the glacier ice retreated from the channel, for nesting and for fishing look-outs, choosing trees with a clear view of water from which to launch themselves after passing fish. But what about us? We were going to miss something special about Juneau. The Old Bridge spanned the sea channel on two narrow lanes, so drivers had to pay attention.
I had a close-up experience with a Power Tower eagle one winter day. At least I think it was one of the Tower Eagles because I found it close to the bridge. But since there are often other eagles around, there was no way to be certain. Anyway, that cold winter day found me out with Mike, a friend, when we noticed a near-frozen eagle trying to remain upright as it teetered on a rocky beach at the edge of the tide. It had obviously been immersed in the channel but had made it to shore. Getting dumped into the sea when trying to snatch a too-large fish from the water is not an unusual happening for eagles. Their stoop is swift as they come in at a shallow angle, and once that rear talon hooks into something too large to immediately lift free, in they may go. Their talons do not lock on prey. They can release at will but they may get dumped before that rear talon is disengaged. Sometimes eagles deliberately land on water to pick up a fish or food scrap. Unless their feathers get soaked they are able to take to the air again. If an eagle has a fish
that’s too heavy to lift off with it will sometimes deliberately hang on and head for shore on the water—the least efficient means of eagle transport, but sometimes, apparently, worth doing. Anyone who has lived in Southeast Alaska has likely seen an eagle struggling along, using its wings as paddles, laboriously making it to shore over surprisingly long distances. Under ordinary circumstances we would not have paid much attention to a wet eagle. It would raise its feathers and shake them, throwing off some of the water, then preen while wind and body heat dried its feathers. It would survive. But this one clearly would not survive—not without help. It had no strength and couldn’t stand upright. Ice laced its feathers. The freezing weather would soon finish it.
its feathers, using a long-tubed hair dryer on lowest heat and blower settings and going gently over the breast and back feathers first—the most important since they mattered for heat retention. Mike kept the eagle from pitching off the stump. Once the ice had melted and the body feathers partly dried I started on the drooping wings. Being careful not to let the heat curl the primary and secondary flight feathers I went over them swiftly on both sides one by one, not allowing the drier to linger on any feather. Then, coming back to the body feathers, I began combing through them using my hand with outstretched fingers, starting at the belly and working my way up through the feathers to the neck, all the time passing the warm air from the blow-drier back and forth.
Suddenly the eagle’s eyes opened wide. Then its talons uncurled and it gripped the stump. Mike no longer had to steady the bird and backed away. It began to raise its body feathers and did not object as I continued to dry its wings. In fact, the eagle, on its own, while watching me, partially extended its wings, making my work easier. The fierce eye regarded me and its pale yellow iris expanded and contracted and I did not know if the eagle, still not fully dry, were going to launch itself into the air over my head. Amazingly, this did not happen. Instead, the eagle seemed to be enjoying the warmth and, also amazingly, seemed to be cooperating with the alien being trying to help it. I was now able to continue taking liberties working my hand freely through belly and breast coverts and into the downy under feathers to partially dry and air them. The eagle raised and puffed out her feathers. The effect reminded me somewhat of a lofted down sleeping bag. At some point we moved her to a stump outdoors to avoid having her injure herself when she was ready to take off. Now fully alert and aware of her surroundings, she raised and lowered her body feathers, and arranged and folded and refolded her wings.
And here, a caution. Do not try this at home. There are laws protecting the national bird. Our rescue of this eagle might well have been illegal. Now, however, there are Raptor Centers in several Alaska communities and around the country with people experienced and permitted in the rehabilitation and release of injured birds.
Beak and eye colors change too during the first four years. Beaks or mandibles start out black with yellow in the corners of the mouth. This yellow gradually replaces the black moving from the back to the front of both upper and lower mandibles over four years until beak is entirely yellow. The iris, dark brown in first year birds, changes to pale yellowish white in adulthood. The pale iris yellow is a different hue from the brighter, closer-to-primary-yellow of the beak.
Chances are, the eagles Harv is seeing have Alaska ancestry! Eagles are making a strong comeback around the nation and have been removed from the Endangered Species List. But it was a close call for the national bird. At one time, only about 400 eagle nests were counted in the lower 48 states, the much diminished bald eagle numbers due to habitat loss and, primarily, to the presence of DDT in their prey. DDT accumulated in adult eagles as they ingested pesticide-laden prey and resulted in eagles producing eggs with shells too thin to withstand the weight of incubation. The pesticide was banned in 1972. In the 1980s and 90s US Fish and Wildlife Service translocated eaglets and eagle eggs from Alaska to some of the lower 48 states. Eagle pairs usually produce clutches of two eggs of which, frequently, only one eaglet survives due to sibling competition, Thus, taking one healthy Alaska eagle egg and substituting it for a DDT-thinned eagle egg in the lower states did not impact Alaska’s estimated 50,000 bald eagles but improved nesting success in the DDT areas. The Fish and Wildlife programs were phased out as eagle numbers rebounded in the 48 states. I’ve not found much reference to these programs on the internet, but know about them through my friendship with the late Fred Robards, Fish and Wildlife Service Eagle Management Biologist for Alaska who participated in the programs. He, and other F&WS friends, Jim King and Sid Morgan, did much to maintain Alaska’s healthy bald eagle populations in Southeast Alaska.
Here are a few more images inasmuch as eagles getting dumped in water was mentioned earlier in my story.
This series of shots was taken from my Alaska studio September 14, 2013. An eagle had captured a salmon, launching itself from a partly submerged piling in front of the studio. I saw the entire episode but was only able to photograph part. The eagle was a male, judging from its small size, and thus, being in a lighter weight class, found itself somewhat disadvantaged when dealing with a vigorous fish. Since the salman had been spotted when a foot or more below the surface, it could not be captured on a shallow-angle dive and the eagle had made its attack straight down, osprey-like, deliberately plunging itself into the sea. Its initial grip must have been well forward on the salmon, allowing the fish to continue swinging its body and tail back and forth in a swimming motion, complicating the eagle’s efforts to get to land. This was evident whenever the eagle paused to rest between wing strokes. One could see that it was being powerfully pulled this way and that by the struggling fish, no doubt making the tow more difficult. But through it all the eagle hung on. (Well, can’t beat fresh, wild-caught Alaska salmon)
The salmon is probably a coho.