Bald eagles find mild winter inviting

By Robin Miller • Last Updated 12:56 pm on Friday, March 02, 2012

This bald eagle sits perched high above the Okkema farm north of Six Lakes. (Courtesy/Evelyn Okkema)

The unseasonably mild winter has made the Montcalm County area a suitable habitat for the bald eagle, according to fish and wildlife specialists. Several local residents — in Greenville, Stanton, Edmore, McBride, Lakeview and Six Lakes — have reported recent bald eagle sightings.

A sight to behold
A bald eagle perched high in a tree near the Okkema’s 700-head dairy farm recently gave Ramona Okkema and her daughter, Evelyn, reason to pull off the road near their home north of Six Lakes.
“This tree has been frequented by large predator birds in the past,” Ramona Okkema said. “Initially, from a distance I thought it was a hawk. But Evelyn said, ‘No, mom, it’s an eagle’. This is the first time I’ve seen an eagle on our farm property in 14 years.”
Eagle sightings have been a regular occurrence at the east end of Dickerson Lake in Stanton where Joel and Mary Lou Black reside. An eagle’s nest rests high in the top of a partially dead pine tree in the 95-acre parcel that has been in the Black family for two generations. Nestled near two small feeder lakes with a creek running between them, Black said it is a perfect eagle habitat.
“They couldn’t have picked a better spot for their home,” Black said. “They’ve been here a long time. We see them on a daily basis, because the nest is so close to our house.”
Two years ago, environmental toxicology and wildlife ecologists from Clemson University in South Carolina came to the property to take blood samples from the nestlings for research purposes, Black said.

Bald Eagle comeback
Forty years ago, there were fewer than 100 active bald eagles nests in Michigan, nearly one quarter of the nationwide total. The diminished eagle population was mostly caused by the DDT pesticide.
Ingestion of this pesticide changed nesting behaviors, which in turn thinned egg shells and made them susceptible to cracks during incubation. Banning these pesticides and government intervention led to their recovery.
The bald eagle — previously classified as endangered until 1995 — was officially removed from the federal government’s threatened species list in 2007.
Today there are more than 600 nesting eagle pairs documented in Michigan, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service  (USFWS).

Nesting near food source
The eagle is a migratory bird. Migration is affected by weather and food ability.
Mature eagles will winter in their nesting area if there’s an available food source, said Dr. William Bowerman, head of The Environmental Science and Technology Department at the University of Maryland.
Bowerman has studied the bald eagle in Michigan for more than 20 years. He was on the Clemson University research team who did testing on the eagles at Dickerson Lake. His research extends beyond eagles to other birds throughout the United States and other countries.
The mild winter definitely factors into migration and the presence of year-round nests, Bowerman said. He also mentioned that prolonged access to open water is part of the overall equation.
“When I started years ago, there were only 220 nesting pairs in Michigan,” Bowerman said. “There is triple that amount now.”

Breeding season
This is the beginning of the bald eagle’s breeding season, which occurs from mid-February to mid-March. The birds establish a territory and build, or add sticks and grass to previously established nests, during this time. Older nests can expand 10 feet deep and 20 feet across.
An eagle’s nest can be seen from Lincoln Avenue, towering in the distance behind Dollar General in Lakeview.  Lakeview residents and employees report seeing eagles around town often.
“I see them flying by my office window quite a bit,” said Gary Davidson, who works at Parker-Hannifin in Lakeview.
Tamarack Lake, located about a quarter mile from the nest in Lakeview, froze later than usual this year. The open water and inlet streams made the area a prime nesting ground due to the eagle’s ability to fish and hunt for food.
Open water and areas around farms are typical winter eagle habitats in the Lower Peninsula, according to Matt Stuber of the USFWS in East Lansing. This is mostly due to their diet of carrion, fish, waterfowl and small mammals.

Documenting numbers
Without proper documentation, Stuber didn’t want to comment about whether there are more eagles in Michigan this year.
Aerial surveys of eagle nests — known as productivity flights — are done twice annually, in mid-February and April, according to Stuber.
“These surveys reveal the number of hatched eggs by how many chicks exist in the nests,” he said. “Each year we generally find an increase.”
Stuber referenced a nest found last year in Jackson County as being the first since monitory records — dating back to the mid-1960s — have been kept.
“The stronghold of the eagle population has been in the north,” Stuber said. “But we are seeing more nests pop up in southern parts with eagles occupying habitats that they haven’t occupied in years.”
The actual numbers are higher due to non-breeding eagles known as floaters, according to Stuber.
“These birds (floaters) don’t breed,” Stuber explained, “whether it’s because they can’t find mate or they’re not of breeding age, which is between four to five years old.”

Eagles along the Grand River and Flat River
“Eagles are becoming more and more common,” said John A. Niewoonder, DNR Wildlife Biologist in Belding. “They were knocked back pretty hard due to chemicals and pesticides, but they’ve been coming back since in the Montcalm-Ionia area.”
The warm weather doesn’t directly affect nesting, but it does affect feeding, according to Niewoonder.
“Typically, in winter, you’ll see them roosting in trees along the Grand River and Flat River, looking for fish,” he said. “With this winter, we’ve had much more open water.”
As for nesting, the eagle is different from other birds, Niewoonder explained. They may build a nest, but never mate or lay eggs.
“Other birds nest every year,” Niewoonder said. “Eagles take a while to nest and sometimes it doesn’t happen.
This is the case with the eagles who have built nests in the Ionia State Recreation Area.
“Either they aren’t mature enough, don’t know how to build a nest or it’s not in the right spot,” Niewoonder said. “Some never settle down. They’re free-spirited and never quite figure it out.”

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