Two days now and the nest tree in my backyard is empty. No chirps, no chitters, no squeals. No longer are the parent eagles winging over my lawn with long fish hanging from their talons and landing on the nest to feed their young. It is the first day of August and they must have finally left for the salmon spawning now in northern rivers. How I would love to tag along with them and see how Junior is managing to find its own fish. I may never see Junior again but I am sure that come fall the parent eagles will be back with brush to renovate their nest for the next spring season.
I remember last October sitting at my kitchen table and seeing an adult eagle flying by with a long branch of dry broom hanging from its talons. I grabbed my point and shoot and happily snapped a picture of the Eagle Witch on her broomstick at Hallowe’en.
Eagles have been nesting in my backyard for the past four years. An auspicious time as four years ago was my 50th wedding anniversary. Eagles are the reason for my marriage. On the eve of my departure back to Australia after my two years of world travels and with a contract to teach speech and drama for the rest of my life, I was in Vancouver working as a waitress for a couple of weeks to earn a few dollars to buy Christmas presents for my family when David Hancock, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, walked in and asked me out on a date.
“Sorry, this is my last weekend in Canada . I catch the boat back to Australia on Monday. I have been invited by friends of friends to go to their private island in their private float plane. This will probably be the last exciting thing I do in my life before I catch the boat back to Australia and have a boring life.”
“I can do better than that,” said the handsome stranger confidently. “Come to my private island in my private plane – and count eagles.”
I didn’t believe him for a moment but I would show him that Aussie gals were tough – and well brought up. I cancelled my plans and accompanied David to Vancouver Island (“God’s Country” he said on the ferry) and flew in his little two-seater Piper Pacer on floats from Elk Lake near Victoria across the mountains of Vancouver Island to Barkley Sound on the west coast.
The pilot handed me a jigsaw puzzle of islands marked with eagle nests and called out information that I had to place on the map. It was a wild stormy day as we buffeted our way around the sound. We went up, we went down, and my stomach lurched in response. I had never been up in a plane before, any plane. At a particularly bumpy moment above the roar of the engine, I heard, “You are the first girl to come up in this plane who didn’t get air sick. You Aussie girls are tough. Marry me.” And I did a few weeks later on the other side of the world.
My life with Dave and eagles lasted ten years and some decades later after years spent North of Sixty I returned to Vancouver Island and am here now on Nanoose Bay.
And then four years ago, on the 50th anniversary of my marriage to an eagle biologist, two eagles set up a nest atop a tall Douglas fir tree in my backyard and laid two eggs. Uncanny timing. The Universe at work. One eaglet was killed by crows, the other survived. The second year, two fledged and were never seen again. The third year one fledged, the other disappeared. This year, after one of the coldest, longest winters in my memory, the eagles returned late but renovated their nest, laid their egg or eggs, and although I didn’t see it, I think their eggs hatched at the end of April.
I waited to see little white or greyish heads above the rim of the nest but none came. No young this year? The parent birds kept coming and going to and from the nest, they did not abandon it. May passed. And then one day I peered up from my kitchen door and there sitting proud and tall beside its parent was one brown fully feathered juvenile eagle.
But it was different this year. One eaglet either out of sight inside the nest or standing tall and still at the rim of the nest. Weeks passed before I saw it perching and preening on a side branch and very few times did I catch it gripping one for balance and flapping its wings to build up strength and agility for fledging and flying. It was mid July before it flew.
I am not sure it was a conscious decision. It could have fledged by accident. The summer south east winds were whipping up whitecaps on the waves and the leaves on the tree were madly dancing in the air. It would be easy for the eaglet to be flapping its wings from a branch, when a sudden updraft launched it in the air and it found itself flying.
It had company. Crows flapped noisily at the lower levels but eagles and turkey vultures soared high above in silence. The young eagle soared with them as if it had been flying all its life. But it returned to the nest tree to be fed.
For the last two weeks in July, the eaglet has been flying from tree to tree, using the perch trees of the parents on either side of my lawn, handling the breezes without problems, returning to the nest tree to be fed.
But these last two weeks of July, the eaglet has spent most of its time alone in the nest tree. shrieking and squealing. Had the parents abandoned feeding it, thinking that starvation would be the best teacher? I threw the filleted carcasses of salmon onto the beach below the nest at low tide, the adults made low swoops over them but made few attempts to grab the pieces and fly them up to their offspring. Was this the school of hard knocks?
A five minute walk at low tide along the beach to the Nanoose Bay Nation reserve, dozens of canoes on a Tribal Journey between Victoria and Campbell River were pulling into shore to ask permission of the elders to land and rest. Prayers of thanks for a safe, successful voyage followed in return. Hundreds of people were gathered for the celebration. In a huddle at the tide line, dozens of rich red salmon carcasses littered the gravel at the water’s edge, a feast for eagles, yet no birds came. It seemed that the people would be feasting that night but not the eagles.
I left the next day by kayak to spend the weekend camping at Gerald Island three hours paddle away. When I returned I looked up at the nest tree but no eagles were flying, or perching, or preening, or eating, or squealing. They were not there today.
So the parent birds seemed to have raised just one young this year, a young eaglet that had only appeared at the end of the season, dressed fully in its adult feathers, ready to fledge. I couldn’t help but thinking that they had been hiding their child from the pesky crows in a seemingly bottomless nest. They were taking no chances this year.