A Dramatic New Flight Pattern

By , April 6, 2011

Lately we’ve noticed a change over—or, to be more precise—beside the cabin. Bald eagles have started passing low, swooping upward across the gap in the trees that provides our cabin’s view of Lynn Canal. Sitting at the dining table in front of one of our big windows, we look down on them as they pass.

Like most Alaskans, we’re very used to seeing eagles. Perhaps we are overly familiar with them. Their prestige as our national emblem tarnishes a bit after you’ve watched one too many eagles squabble with a seagull over a scrap of garbage, and lose. Still, in flight, they’re an impressive sight, particularly at close range.

Far from garbage dumps and other human distractions, we get to see eagles at their best, and most natural. They’re over the homestead year ’round, except for about a month in early winter, when they become scarce as they migrate up the valley to the Chilkat River eagle “council grounds,” to fish the late salmon run there. They usually take advantage of the forested ridge above us to sit and watch the water, until they see a likely fish at improbable distances. Then they launch, dive, and, fairly often, snag their prey.

We even have an officially documented eagle nesting tree bordering our property. This causes us a bit of difficulty, due to the laws restricting activity in a buffer zone around it. The nest has been long disused; currant bushes growing out of its center reach more than 3 feet high in the summer. We have yet to learn how to officially “decommission” an old nesting tree, if possible. If we could do so, we might eventually build at that end of the property one day. At the very least, we can stop being so careful to avoid the area.

We have become familiar with the eagles’ flight patterns over the years, which remain fairly steady, as mating pairs stake out the best perches along the coast. This new pattern is a strange one. I climbed the Power Point to look over onto the beach north of us, expecting to find beached carrion that might have attracted them. Instead, I found an eagle sitting about halfway up a tree at the beach edge a quarter mile north of us. I don’t know if they’re building a nest there, but at present, there are at least two mature eagles and one juvenile using the area. When they launch from that perch they arc low over the water, just beginning to gain momentum as they pass through our view. They appear suddenly, a huge bird soaring diagonally past within a few yards of us. It’s rather awe inspiring.

If they continue this new pattern, I’m hoping this will help in the upcoming herring run. With that launch, they’ll no doubt begin snagging fish right off our beach, so when they start doing that, I’ll know it’s time to start fishing. It’ll be rather daunting to have them swooping low overhead or in front of us while we fish the runs ourselves. We’ll need to keep a sharp eye out to avoid nasty surprises.

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