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Natural World 2/17-2/24

Counting beaks


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It was the winter of 1963 that I decided to go on my first official eagle count. National Audubon was starting counts to establish trends in populations, and eagles occupied my life like never before when I was issued my Federal Banding Permit in 1962. I became more aware of eagles because of banding, (finding them shot, trapped, killed by motor vehicles and poisoned by coyote bait stations).

Long before that, in the '30s, I was a kid on the farm in West Haven, Conn. Eagles, especially golden eagles, were nothing more than images I'd seen in Finley & Bohlman's extraordinary photos, but they grabbed me anyway.

I think I was about 10, which would have been the spring of '38, when I discovered "Birds of America." That book changed my life! It created a love for books that is as profound today as it was then. It also sent me on a life's journey with birds that's still alive today. For almost 80 years, William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman keep feeding me on their love of birds.

While I was working with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in the '60s, I rented a little house on the Finley estate, Riverby, in Milwaukie—south of Portland—and had access to Finley's vault where his photos and personal papers were still stored. As I sat there immersed in his personal life and accomplishments, I half-expected Finley himself to walk in.

A couple of weeks back, Sue and I conducted our annual mid-winter raptor count for the Oregon Eagle Foundation; a route that took us from our house at Sun Mountain to Culver and many points in between. We returned to our home the back way, via Lake Billy Chinook, the old town site of Grandview and all that wonderful deer winter range that leads one back to Camp Polk Road and eventually back home.

Sue took the aove left photo very near the old Grandview cemetery, right in the middle of the public land that's splendid deer winter range. Seeing those two eagles and about 10 ravens hanging around left no question that somewhere close by a dead deer was going back to the soil, hurried along by those who need such energy—badly—in winter.

Events like this provide us with another look at the many-faceted appearances of bald eagles as they go from egg-to-adult. As one can see, it isn't all one change of feathers from immature-to-adult for bald eagles. First, they go from gray down in the nest to all brown to speckled with gray/brown plumage. Then the juvenile adult male has flecks of gray and brown mixed with the emerging white feathers of head and tail. This will change to dark brown all over with the bright yellow beak and feet, brilliant white head and tail.

It's those varied plumage difference that sometimes throws birders off when it comes to telling the difference between adult golden eagles and immature bald eagles; in certain lighting conditions it's all too easy to mistake one for the other. But there is no question about different sizes of male and female baldies (and other raptors)—males are smaller than females.

We had another occurrence that day that I think is worth mentioning—the realization of the difference between soil and dirt. In my opinion, soil is that medium in which we grow healthy plants that support a diverse ecosystem. Dirt is soil that has been turned into a single use, or so heavily contaminated by man that it no longer supports anything even close to biodiversity.

This was so vivid in so many places we looked for raptors, especially those with long irrigation lines and pivots. That soil has been used for so long for a single purpose—and so pumped full of chemicals used for agriculture that all it will grow is a crop.

Nowhere was the difference more obvious than on the north side of Lower Bridge Road out of Terrebonne. That area is used for agriculture, but not abused; there's still soil there. It was so noticeable as we pulled up and spotted the first red-tailed hawk feeding on a small rodent.

When we finally totaled raptors in the first area of about 80 acres, it came to 18 red-tail hawks, two rough-legged hawks (down from the Arctic to dine upon Oregon's rodents) and a lovely little adult male harrier sailing by.

There is only one reason for that plethora of raptors utilizing that small of an area; the agricultural lands had a healthy ecosystem providing habitat for the diversity of rodents supporting the intense raptor population.

That said, please think again of the consequences of using chemicals when it's not necessary, or using them at all. It's my belief that before too long many of these agriculture chemicals are going to reach our water tables, and that will be a sad day for all of us.

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