As much as I romanticize my youth along the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, one thing I did not see were birds of prey. Populations had plummeted here and across our nation. The use of DDT, for mosquito control, especially, had drastically reduced bird populations. I truly do not recall even once seeing an osprey fly over the Indian River Lagoon when I was a kid….Hard to believe, isn’ it?
Today, forty years later, every single time I walk the Ernie Lyons Bridge to Hutchinson Island I see multiple ospreys sitting on light posts and diving like missiles into the shallow waters of the Indian River Lagoon. On the Roosevelt Bridge in Stuart there is a resident osprey I count on seeing each time. He sits on the railing completely unaffected by the stream of civilization passing by. Last week, while driving home from Belle Glade, I saw a bald eagle near the Dupuis Wildlife Management Area. “An eagle!” I exclaimed out loud pulling over my car to watch its unmistakable white head and magnificent wing span glide over the tops of the pine trees. “Amazing…” I thought to myself.
The point is, good things happen. Good things are happening now too, but like the birds of prey we may not see the difference until many years have passed. Have hope. Know your work is making a difference for our river and our environment. Things can change for the better. The osprey and the eagle, they are proof. When you see them, be inspired!
Benjamin Franklin preferred the wild turkey as our national bird, as he felt the bald eagle, that sometimes steals food from other birds of prey, had “bad moral character…” Even so, one has to wonder if the United States of America would have ever reached its “greatness” if our national bird had been a turkey.
Just recently during the Stuart Air Show, my brother Todd, sent me some photos he took of an eagle soaring over the St Lucie River in North River Shores. About three weeks ago, I was pulling into Cedar Point Plaza in Stuart, I looked up and saw the unmistakable white “bald” head, large body enormous wing span of a bald eagle. Incredible! Inspirational! It made my day!
Today, in our Indian River Lagoon Region, birds of prey are by far more prevalent than when I was a kid growing up in Stuart in the 1970s and 80s. Even if the Indian River Lagoon system was healthier then, than it is now, in the 70s and 80s, rarely did one see the great eagle soaring or the abundant ospreys one sees today.
The reason? Of course DDT, (dichlorodiphenyltrichhloroethane), a powerful chemical used to control mosquitoes and as an agricultural insecticide. Once it became widely known that DDT was a threat to both bird and human health, primarily due to the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, in 1962, DDT’s use was eventually outlawed in the United States.
So in spite of the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon’s extensive decline, there are more eagles about today than before. In Florida, after being designated as “endangered” since 1972, in 1995 the bald eagle was reclassified as “threatened.” The birds and their habitat remain protected.
Eagles mate for life and a pair has been reported in the area of Sewall’s Point for about four years. The photo below was taken by Greg Braun and shows one of the eagles sitting on a rock by Bird Island. Apparently, the pairs may leave each other for many months when traveling great distances, and then return to their nesting sites. There are accounts of their “mating sky dance” where the eagles lock talons hundreds of feet up in the air and then tumble, almost hitting the earth, only to release and regain their flight at the last-minute!
An eagle can stand three feet in height, and its wing span can be up to 8 feet! Their eyes are just larger than human eyes and of course, their eye sight is superior, approximately 3 and 1/2 times better than a human with 20/20 vision. For instance, they are able to see another eagle flying 50 miles away and a rabbit moving over the ground a mile away. They love fish and are outstanding hunters. Females are larger than males and dominate the nest, often killing the smaller male sibling. Nature does not sugar coat the eagle’s drive to dominate and survive, especially the females….
Another strong instinct is “pruning” which chicks mimic even before they have feathers by accessing an oil gland at the base of the torso using their curved beak to pretend they are coating each feather. Baby eagles must grow for about five or six years to be sexually mature and attain their white head feathers. Parents take care of the young for many months even though the young start flapping their wings around 8 weeks and are encouraged to take flight. I was lucky to experience this wonder, when a few years ago, Dr Dale Hipson, a friend of the family, took me to his camouflaged hide out in the Corbett Wildlife Management Area to watch eagle parents dutifully feeding and teaching their young. It was an experience I will never forget.
Dr Hipson taught me that the word “bald” is an archaic word for “white” and this is how eagles got their name. Juvenile eagles are brown in color and often mistaken as ospreys or hawks.
Reading about eagles, it is hard to understand their migration patterns and perhaps scientists do not really know as they can’t fly with them, but it seems some eagles in Florida migrate thousands of miles to Alaska (Snow birds!) and some are “resident” eagles remaining here. Florida is the second most eagle-populated state in the nation other than Alaska.
In closing, I am happy that some birds are doing well in spite of the poor health of the Indian River Lagoon. And I have to say that with no disrespect to the turkey, I am glad the eagle is our national bird!