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Eagle abundance on display | When farmers cut their fields on Whidbey, bald eagles put on show

Capturing the behaviors of bald eagles is something Clinton wildlife photographer Paul Lischeid has done on a weekly basis for more than a decade.   - Photo courtesy Paul Lischeid
Capturing the behaviors of bald eagles is something Clinton wildlife photographer Paul Lischeid has done on a weekly basis for more than a decade.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Paul Lischeid

When grass fields were cut near Michael Crump’s house in Oak Harbor in early June, he got a bird’s- eye view of a spectacular nature show.

Crump watched from his front yard as bald eagles swooped into a vast field of freshly cut grass and tried to dig their talons into small critters injured or killed from the tractor’s blades.

Oftentimes, the eagles would fly off with nothing but grass in their clutches. Other times, a small rodent or snake would disappear with them into the air.

If it were just one or two eagles on display, diving into the field or hanging around in nearby trees or on rooftops, Crump might not have taken much notice. But he counted 26.

“It was breathtaking,” he said.

This sort of eagle show plays out repeatedly in late spring and early summer in the central and northern reaches of Whidbey Island as farmers cut their fields and expose the creatures that hide within the tall grasses.

One particular stretch of high activity occurs along State Highway 20 between Hastie Lake and Monroe Landing roads outside Oak Harbor, where vehicles pull off the road to view the spectacle.

“We call them eagle jams,” said Steve Ellis, former president of the Whidbey Audubon Society.

Paul Lischeid, a wildlife and landscape photographer from Clinton, estimated between 35-40 eagles in the fields near the Blue Fox Drive-In when he pulled over and started clicking pictures in early June. He said there were about six standing on the roof of a house.

“It seems like there are more eagles now than there were before,” said Lischeid, who’s lived on Whidbey since 1989. “You don’t realize how many we have here until they start cutting the fields.”

Once listed as a federally endangered species, the bald eagle’s population rebound is evident on Whidbey, where  an aerial survey conducted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2005 revealed 47 nesting pairs of eagles on the island. Since that study, that number has risen to about 52 or 53 pairs, according to Ellis.

Nationally, the bald eagle population had dipped to 417 nesting pairs by 1963, according to surveys, before the Endangered Species Act protected the bird and helped boost the numbers to nearly 9,800 pairs by 2007, when the eagles were de-listed.

On Whidbey, the sight of a bald eagle is often a daily occurrence for many residents. For those who live near farmland come late spring, it’s a matter of how many.

“It must be the sound of the tractors,” Lischeid said.

“You are ringing the dinner bell,” said Matt Klope, a U.S. Navy wildlife biologist from Oak Harbor. “You’ve got to realize, eagles are basically lazy.”

Eagles swoop in and compete for meadow voles, rabbits or other small creatures. Sometimes, they make their move 10 feet from where the tractor had passed, Crump said.

“It’s spectacular to see,” Lischeid said.

It’s also a little unusual, according to Jim Watson, a research scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife who has studied eagles extensively.

Watson said eagles mostly live near shorelines or lakes and commonly eat fish and larger mammals, not small rodents.

“It’s the kind of behavior you’ll see very often with soaring hawks like red-tailed hawks following a tractor this time of year,” Watson said. “It’s a little more unusual with bald eagles. Obviously, they’re taking advantage of what’s available.”

“It’s a learned behavior,” Ellis said.

Young eagles are joined by adults in the pursuit of the easy meal. And make no mistake, the younger eagles that still haven’t developed the white heads are bald eagles and not golden eagles, as they are commonly mistaken for, Klope said.

He’s lived on Whidbey Island for 25 years and hasn’t seen a golden eagle on the island yet.

“They’re very, very rare,” Klope said. “They’re not rare in numbers, just rare locally.”

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