Category Archives: Bloomington

Hiking to the Eagle Hacking Tower

 

The 1985 hacking tower at Lake Monroe.

Bald eagle. CC.

Bloomington, IN–The sky spit bits of snow as temperatures in the 20s made me pull up my hood over an insulated hat. Other hikers were wearing face masks and balaclavas. I decided to take wool mittens that could pull down to expose my fingers for photos, slung a pair of binoculars over my neck, and tightened the laces on my insulated high-top hiking boots. I remembered silk underwear and a “smoke ring” funnel scarf made of ox musk yarn from Alaska. But without a backpack, I had to choose between a spotting scope and a hiking pole as our highlight hike during Eagles Over Monroe weekend. Next time the backpack would be another staple in the car trunk, along with extra mittens, hats, gloves, and scarves.

Our group of 20 slowly snaked along an overgrown field, headed to the hacking tower, built at Lake Monroe in 1985 to reintroduce the bald eagle to Indiana. Jill Vance, interpretative naturalist at Lake Monroe, led the group. We needed her for directions and details, or course, but also because the public isn’t allowed here from October through April because it is a waterfowl resting area.

Soon we were stumbling over sticks, brushing up against brambles, even hopping over a small creek. Unfortunately, one hiker slipped and fell into the water, mud covering his entire leg and coat. I worried he might get hypothermia in the cold weather, but he was determined to see the hacking tower.

When eagles first learn to fly–or hack–they develop a bond to the location. Eagles return to their hacking site to build their own nests as parents, when they’re about 4-5 years old. The hacking tower built in 1985 on the North Fork of Stillwater Marsh on Lake Monroe. This site was chosen for a reintroduction program due to the close proximity to water, so the birds could fish, as well as stands of trees for building nests. The tower accommodated 5-6 week old eaglets brought from Wisconsin and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using two locations and the average eaglet hacking at 13 weeks, the program could hosted two hacking groups per year through 1989. By then, eagles were coming back to Lake Monroe to nest, and the program was deemed a success. The tower was left to fall into disrepair.

We looked at photos Vance brought, showing the construction of the tower, when telephone poles donated by Southern Indiana Bell Telephone were pounded into the ground near the water. The poles were wrapped in metal to keep predators from climbing up the poles to get at the chicks, and an old staircase stopped several feel above the ground for the same reason. Vance said the biologists would bring a stepladder to get the first tower stairs.

As the eaglets fledge, they often have a lot of false starts, Vance explained, spiraling down to the ground. One eaglet seemed to do a lot of fluttering down without flying back up. A biologist would pick up the bird and take it up the stairs back to the nest. About the fifth time it did this, the bird didn’t wait for the biologist to take it back upstairs–it went up the stairs by itself.

The wildlife biologists hid in this blind during the 1985-1989 hacking seasons to observe the eagles in their nest.

We hiked a little farther down the overgrown road to a tower leaning precariously in the water. This was where the biologists hid and could observe the birds. As we looked at it, an eagle soared overhead. Not far across the marsh, a bald eagle’s nest was visible in the trees. Eagle nests are about five feet across, so they can be easy to spot.

This was one of 12-14 eagles’ nests that are scattered around the edge of the lake. The 1985 program goal was to achieve 20 nests in the state of Indiana by 2020. There are now more than 200 throughout the state.

Vance also pointed out a telephone pole far out in the water. These were brought in by helicopter and dropped into the lakebed to serve as perching poles for the eagles. This is one that still remains, and eagles can be spotted there.

As we stood gazing over the water, the bald eagle returned, swooping into the nest and remained. It was easily visible by binoculars, and some hikers offered the use of their scopes to see the nesting eagle close up. My heart fluttered a bit. Some things are worth the wait.

 

 

Eagles Over Monroe 2017

Bald eagle flies from nest. By U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region [CC BY 2.0

Bloomington, IN–Temperatures in the 20s and low 30s didn’t deter more than 200 people from attending the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe weekend at Monroe Lake this year. The event, sponsored by Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources, brought ornithologists, biologists, dedicated bird watchers, kids, parents, grandparents, and outdoors enthusiasts to learn about eagles in the area.

Talon of a Great Horned Owl.

Patrick Haulter was holding up a Great Horned Owl’s talon, saying he had been twirling it in his fingers once when it punched a hole in his finger. “Still sharp twenty years later,” he said. Haulter, interpretive naturalist at Brown County State park, entertained and informed the audience in his talk about behavior and anatomy of birds of prey.

“Life for the raptor is tough,” he said. “They’re highly adapted to what they do, but not to us.” He  described the crop, where a bird stores food for later “kind of like my beard does.”

The high-tech tools, such as satellite and radio-telemetry, as well as the low-tech ones like banding and wing tags are some of the ways scientists follow the movements of birds. Dr. Brian Washburn, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Service National Wildlife Research Center described how he goes about his work, which tools he chooses, and how he works with other scientists to learn about bird movements, habitat management, and interaction with humans. Washburn depends on people to call about birds they see tagged or find lost equipment. “Goose neck collars are really easy to read,” he said. “Wing tags can be really helpful to figure out who’s who.” Each band has a unique 9-digit code, but they are hard to read at a distance, even with a spotting scope. Eagles require a special band that is riveted on “because they’re so good at popping them off.”

Working with birds of prey can be dangerous, even when a handler wears leather gloves and jacket, eye protection, and limits their interaction to a half and hour. Washburn showed a photo of himself with hands bandaged from an encounter with a bird being banded. “The Cooper’s Hawk is like holding a running chain saw,” he said. “And if an eagle clamps down, it will not let go.”

Cost of the more high-tech tracking devices deter scientists from attaching them to all birds, and the transmitters are often just lost. “Sometimes we get them back, like when a Canada Goose walks in front of a car,” he said.

Will Schaust, assistant manager of Eagle Creek Ornithology Center talked about a variety of birding apps. Once, while walking with family on a hike, a cardinal landed in a maple tree ahead of the group. He was very excited to tell the kids that this was the state bird, how it was also the state bird for six other states, and more. When he asked them if they knew what the bright red cardinal was, they replied, “Mr. Will, it’s an Angry Bird!”

Since technology is enmeshed in our lives, we may as well take advantage of it when we can, he said. Schaust then demonstrated several of his favorite apps that help in bird identification.

  • The Sibley eGuide to Birds has the largest variety of calls–some five to seven for each bird–and can be worth the $20 if you want to id them by their calls.
  • Birdsnap an app for iPhone or on your computer, uses real photos of birds, it’s free, and you can take a picture and id a bird. But storage for large files can be a problem.
  • Merlin Bird ID, which is free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides five questions to narrow down a bird by size, location, color, and more.
  • The Warbler Guide, for $13, offers 58 species of warblers from any angle. “I can spin that bird like a bad 90s DJ,” he quipped while rotating the bird photo.
  • eBird, also from the Cornell Lab, is free, and can help birders search for hot spots and keep checklists.
  • The Audubon Bird Guide apps range from .99 cents to $8, but it covers the entire country.

As 130 people “ate like raptors” dining on fish, venison, and turkey soup at Saturday’s Lunch with the Eagles, the Indiana Raptor Center falconers brought out several live raptors who had been rescued. Center director of education Laura Edmunds and described their characteristics. Attendees saw a kestrel, barn owl, two peregrine falcons, a bald eagle, and a golden eagle. “There’s something special about birds of prey,” Edmunds says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I still can’t say what. I don’t have a tattoo yet, but one day I’m gonna take the dive and maybe get a golden eagle right here,” she says pointing to her shoulder.

She says you can tell what type of bird a falconer uses by what car the falconer drives. If they

Falconer from Indiana Raptor Center holds a red-tailed hawk.

have a small Kestrel, they might drive a Mini-Cooper. Those who fly Red-Tailed Hawks drive pick-up trucks. But the ones that fly Peregrine Falcons need a bid vehicle like a Navigator. “If you lose a Peregrine Falcon, a bad day means driving 80 miles to get it. If they fly a Cooper’s Hawk, though, they might not have a car at all, they might drive a scooter.”

After lunch, everyone ran to their cars to stop at designated driving spots to see if they could spy the eagles. Experienced birders with scopes were at each stop. While we toured several places, the closest we could get was a bald eagle way across the lake, maybe a mile away. It looked like a white dot in the trees. Not a satisfying ending to our Saturday, though the talks were informative.

Sunday morning came cloudy and cold. We bundled up for the one-hour hike out to the original hacking tower for the eagles. When eagles first learn to fly–or hack–they develop a bond to the location. Eagles return to their hacking site to build their own nests as parents, when they’re about 4-5 years old. The hacking tower built in 1985 on the North Fork of Stillwater Marsh on Lake Monroe accommodated 5-6 week old eaglets brought from Wisconsin and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using two locations and the average eaglet hacking at 13 weeks, the program could hosted two hacking groups per year through 1989. By then, eagles were coming back to Lake Monroe to nest, and the program was deemed a success.

We stumbled over brush and sticks, following a road that was slowly reverting back to the woods. While walking between the hacking tower and a nearby tower that the biologists used to watch the fledglings, we saw a big black nest across the water. This time is was much closer and easier to see with the naked eye. Suddenly, an eagle swooped in, gliding into the nest. Binoculars rose up to all eyes in unison, and ooos and ahs rang out. At last, our eagle was sighted. What a magnificent ending to a weekend devoted to these magnificent birds, home at last.

Eagle about to land in his nest. CC.

 

 

 

 

An Owl Prowl and Eagle Update at Lake Monroe

Special feathers enable owls, like this barred owl, to fly silently. Creative Commons CC0

Bloomington, IN–Clouds obscured the stars Friday night as I walked into Fourwinds Resort on Monroe Lake, but not enough to hide a Great Blue Heron flying overhead, its long legs stretched out behind. A good sign that birds were active for the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe, a winter event where ornithologists, state naturalists, and other birding experts share tips and knowledge about eagles in the area.

The weekend offered hikes and eagle watching drives, close-up encounters with birds of prey, and first-person stories from wildlife biologists who had worked to help build a bald eagle population.

But first, we needed to get signed up for the evening’s owl prowl by lantern light, as well as register for a hike to a former eagle hacking (where they learn to fly) site for Sunday morning.

About twenty of us gathered at 6:30 p.m. to pick up tiny battery-operated lanterns and head out with our guide, Will Schaust of the Eagle Creek Ornithology Center. We pulled up hoods against the wind as we walked over to a stand of trees at the edge of the parking lot. Here Schaust described the types of owls common to Indiana, how they hunt at night, and played used a birding app to demonstrate their calls.

“Sounds like a horse on helium, doesn’t it?” he said, playing the Barred Owl call. We also listed to an Eastern Screech Owl call and a Great Horned Owl, “like the big owl that suddenly swoops into you in a horror movie.”

While alternating between calls, Schaust told us to look in the trees for owls, because they fly silently, the stealth pilots of the birds of prey world. Seeing and hearing little other than the recorded calls, we hiked into the woods as Schaust played the barred owl call again. Suddenly, several owls called at once. Was it a new recording, or did we actually hear owls in the wild? It was the latter, he confirmed, rather like a “bunch of buddies getting together and laughing nervously. Heh, heh, heh.”

Our owl prowl successful, we headed in from the wind and cold and back to the hotel. We were just in time to hear Rex Watters, Monroe Lake’s wildlife biologist, talk about recent sightings of eagles that were part of the reintroduction program.

In 1985, Watters was part of a plan to reintroduce bald eagles to Indiana at Monroe Lake. None had been born in the wild in Indiana since 1897. The goal, he said, was to get 20 nests in the state by 2020. Today, there are more than 200 nests in Indiana, and an average of 12-14 in the Monroe Lake area alone.

Recent sightings include C-14, so named for the band on its leg that was attached at Monroe Lake in 1987, making it 30 years old this year. Though wild eagles can be up to 50 years old, C-14’s age is not unusual. But half of all wild eagles born do not live past the first year and nearly 80% do not make it to five years old. Understandably, the eagle watching community cheered about the discovery of C-14.

Lantern lit for an owl prowl at Monroe Lake

If you’re interested in taking an owl prowl, there is another hike by candlelight at Monroe Lake coming Feb. 7.

Eagle Watching at Lake Monroe

Boat ramp at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Bloomington, IN–The ice over Lake Monroe at Allens Creek shimmered in the late afternoon sun. A female belted kingfisher chirped nearby, clearly annoyed at the visitors to her fishing spot. Soon, she ignored them and returned to diving in a small break in the ice, seeking dinner.

Spotting a belted kingfisher at Allens Creek, Lake Monroe

Most visitors to the 10,750-acre Lake Monroe usually come in summer for boating or relaxing on the beaches. The lake is actually a reservoir, created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1965 for flood control and is now a water and recreation source for the city of Bloomington, Indiana.

In winter, though, the lake’s few visitors find peace, calm, and sometimes bald eagles and golden eagles. A “Citizen Scientist” program sponsored by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources recruits local volunteers to look for eagles along the lake and record activities. In the first 20 days of official spotting in 2016, volunteers recorded 62 sightings.

While Paynetown SRA off SR 446 is the biggest summer recreation spot on Lake Monroe, it is not the spot with the highest eagle sightings. Aptly named Eagle Pointe on the lake’s south end near The Fourwinds Inn yielded the most spottings—9 eagles—in December. Two volunteers reported on December 9: “Two adults in nest. One, presumably the female, arranging large sticks. At one point both birds gave us the direct eagle eye visible through the spotting scope! One adult flew to our side of the bay and perched in tree about 200 yards away.”

While four sightings of eagles had also been made at the Allens Creek boat ramp early in December, the clear day later in the month yielded just the kingfisher and a heron wading at a far edge. After an hour in the warm setting sun, we loaded up our car and started to head out when a big bird flew low over the water, seeking prey. It looked a lot like an eagle, but was more likely an osprey, and positive identification wasn’t possible at such a quick glance.

Birders can spy eagles on the lake at any time, but the easiest winter sightings have been February through March. Binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary for getting a good look.

Interested in help finding eagles at Lake Monroe? January 27-29, 2017 is the 17th annual Eagles Over Monroe weekend at The Fairwinds Inn. For just $10, you can take eagle hikes, hear from raptor experts—and for an additional fee—have lunch with eagles, which is sponsored by the resort and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Beginning birders and families are welcome to the weekend event, and experts will be posted with spotting scopes along trails to help identify birds.

Frozen marsh at Saltwater Creek observation area, Lake Monroe