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