The Story of Blueberry:
In more than 60 years of dealing with eagles, not counting our incidents getting world coverage on TV and live streaming Web, no actual bald eagle nest has resulted in more people simply asking me directly: "Do you know of the eagles nesting on the tower by Boundary Bay?"
So here is what I know from my records of "HWF Nest #152" -- but one of nearly 400 nests we have documented in the Fraser Valley. I would call it just the 'Tower Nest' but I have 9 pairs locally nesting on similar towers -- and several in and around Boundary Bay because we humans have long-ago chopped down most of the trees in which they would prefer to nest. But no doubt, this is the most obvious nest to many: the Boundary Bay Highway 99 Tower Nest #152 -- okay, the Tower nest!!
In the fall of 2010 I noticed adult eagles perched on the tower where earlier that year, and for the 3 previous years, Red-tailed hawks had successfully nested. Comments from neighbors started during the spring and summer of 2011. The eagles were so obvious standing on the tower and the nest was growing throughout the spring to a noticeable size. I had seen considerable nest activity during the spring of 2011, including seeing an adult sitting in the incubation position suggesting she had eggs. However the pair was not successful that season. By late summer the adults had departed, as all our eagles do, on their northern migration but were back on the tower by early November 2011 -- getting ready for the 2012 breeding season.
This pair carried in a lot of twigs and branches during the fall of 2011 and again in January and February of 2012. By late summer the two chicks were exercising, pounding their wings up and down and doing "helicopter lifts" to the delight of those of us who care. This was also to be their first successful year -- fledging 2 young. Again the adults and the 2 fledged young departed the area in the late summer and again the adults returned that late October to re-establish their nesting territory -- or at least keep out intruders. This put us to the fall of 2012 which was the beginning of the 2013 nesting season -- and the nest height was attracting more attention from drivers -- and I was getting more "corner store" questions about them!!
So here we were at this 2013 nesting season. The huge nest and the adults constant attendance made this a very conspicuous pair to the Highway 99 traffic and I received hundreds of comments about them throughout the spring of 2013. From the early summer weeks I and many others had watched this pair; their developing chicks appearing larger and more frequently over the nest edge with each day. Then on 3 trips by the nest I saw only the one chick standing alone on the rim or adjacent tower bars and I began to wonder. My estimate was that we were still a week from proper fledging. Of course, the first couple of times I did not see both young was not unusual. The sibling could be hunkered downed on the nest or even sitting in a position I could not see. But this day something said, "Do a more thorough check"!
I again got parked off the highway edge, positioned the scope and watched and waited. I scoped the area around the nest from my elevated position on the side of the highway but saw only one eaglet. The fields immediately surrounding the tower were freshly mowed, the blueberry fields to the east were filled with pickers and to the north grew tall corn into which I could not see, nor an eagle traverse!! Immediately south ran the Serpentine River and on the overlooking tower beside the river sat dad watching! This was Pa's favorite hunting perch to view the intertidal parts of the Serpentine River. Ma and sibling kept an eye on me from the nest above. Then of course crossing to the west and south was busy Highway 99 - the main road from Vancouver to White Rock and onward to the US where it becomes Interstate 5. To the west of that the well ditched intertidal fields led to Boundary Bay and the best bald eagle habitat in North America. This nest is one of the 29 and 59 active bald eagle nests in the adjacent cities of Surrey and Delta respectively. This is the realm of nesting bald eagles!!
After about an hour, and with still only evidence of one chick, in spite of the female returning with food, I decided I should check out the tall grass below the tower and around the adjacent fields. As soon as I got to the tower base there was the answer -- a bright eyed fully grown eaglet was peering at me from its hiding position in the tall unmowed grass. Was it hurt? I walked 360 degrees around it. It followed my every move intently -- but did not try to fly or run off. I moved closer. Finally I was within 5 feet and the eaglet started to walk away through the tall grass. The movement seem coordinated and the bird was responding alertly. After 15 feet of fighting his way through the tall grass it broke out into the short mowed grass and stopped. Again I did a 360 degree turn around him. He was silent but now both Ma and Pa were flying overhead screaming. The sibling was intently peering down at me through the steel girders. Definitely I was the bad guy!!
I had a very calm, cool and collected chick -- but was this because he was hurt? I approached and he did his "ponderous eagle prodding" - always staying about 6 -10 feet in front of me in the open field. We circled the tower base. He was a walker -- not a flyer. The spawned out salmon carcasses at this time of the season are 1000 to 1500 miles to the north so this 'walking option' did not seem adequate!! Maye I had a bunged up eagle? More prodding was necessary!!
The options were quite simple. I needed an assessment. I needed to push this eaglet into flying -- or attempting to fly. Then I would be better able to assess his condition. He had used his wings several times and both seemed in fine shape and with no broken feathers. In looking for troubles I could consider he possibly favored his right wing, but this was not serious -- and perhaps more due to the wind direction. I assessed the wind, the direction of the nearby highway and I ran at him and he took off -- and in about 120 feet he landed in the field. Good, maybe excellent but not adequate!! I gave him a 10 minute rest and ran at him again. This time I got 20 feet -- were we already bonded friends and he was not leaving? Another 10 minutes, another run and this time only 10 feet. I guided him doing his "walk" back to the tall grass from which I knew it would be easy to catch him.
Ma and Pa continued circling and calling but only at the tower top height. Even the sibling on the tower was giving a few deep guttural calls as he scowled at me below. No matter how good my intentions I am sure they all thought I was the next bad thing to a coyote threatening their kid!! The time was here for a quick catch, examination of wings and condition and some decisions. The objective is to keep the eagles in the wild, to fledge and migrate with the least human interference but at the same time we do have a great system of raptor rehabilitators in most areas, and in our area we have OWL (Orphaned Wildlife) -- the very best with the trained people and facilities -- but that is only for eagles that can't likely make it on their own. My challenge is to try and keep him in the wild or now, to assess his chances of succeeding in the wild in the his current condition.
The decision with the bird in hand was quite simple. The fledging seemed not just bright eyes and alert -- probably the best assessment -- and showed no signs of physical problems. I threw him/her off again. It landed about 60 feet away and I headed him for the tall grass under the tower. I left but planned to check again that evening -- before the time when a coyote might offer the greatest threat.
Before going for the recapture I put the eagle banding kit in the car. You don't want to band an eagle that is going into captivity -- basically you only band healthy eagles going into the wild either from a banding study or from a rehab center. I also called Christian Sasse to see if he wanted to come!! I guessed that right!! We met at the tower. Lots of excitement as we circled the field. A four-wheeler emerged out of the blueberries and with my best "Punjabi" (which is non-existent!) I came to understand that this gentleman and his pickers had encountered this eaglet for the past 5 days -- wandering the fields and their blueberry isles. He showed no fright of this huge bird. Also he gave no suggestion that this eaglet was a berry-eating vegetarian! The eaglet was just wandering among the blueberry rows!
With Christian and Rosana to help with now finding the eaglet again, the bird was located at the north end of the fields on the edge of the corn patch. Just as I stumbled from the tall grass surrounding the ditch with the eaglet in hand, the next farmer appeared on a motorbike. He also admires "his" eagles. Our eagles are loved by many!! Now knowing that this bird has already survived 5 nights out in this area I feel confident in saying it has earned more opportunities. I banded the eaglet and again threw it off -- only to have it again fly a short distance. We walked the eaglet back to the tall grass below a screaming Ma and sibling and hoped for the best. We left to let him finish maturing. His feathers were all grown but one last feather had not finished sloughing off the dead skin of the former live follicle. His weight was not abnormally low so dropping a few more ounces would only benefit the ease with which he could fly. We again wished him good luck and departed.
Later that second day, due to the story and images that Christian had posted the first night, a number of people were now very concerned about the eagle's welfare. Some had figured out what nest was involved. Others were talking about going out to find the bird. The suggestions, some arriving from the different corners of the continent, all well intended, were that the eagle should be brought into rehab. So, acknowledging everybody's concerns, and not wanting the eagle to become too accommodated to blueberry pickers or that the blueberry or corn patches get overrun with "eagle seekers", it seemed like the best option was to get the eaglet and take it to OWL. This was done,
The next phase of this story is also a happy one. The eaglet, and if he does not have a name already, I hereby call him "Blueberry", has progressed well under the care of OWL and on Saturday, August 24, the group who locally followed this bird were on hand to watch Rob throw Blueberry into the wind -- and may we see Blueberry again after a successful migration. All the non-breeding eagles of the area are basically gone and at least 90 percent of the breeding residents and fledglings have already departed in the past couple of weeks. If Blueberry is true to his breeding, he too will pick up the westerly updrafts as they strike the coastal mountains and have a free down-hill glide to Alaska.
Let me digress a little in a very special thanks to OWL and their volunteers. As some of you know, going back over 60 years I had the first British Columbia rehabilitation facility and received all the raptors, sea birds, seals, cougars and bears from Vancouver Island and what Stanley Park could not handle from the mainland. I was in high school when these creatures in need started to arrive from the Fish and Wildlife biologists and game wardens. We -- that is the "royal we" -- mother and I and caring friends -- did what we could. Rarely we got veterinary help to suggest what we should do. But necessity sets roots and it has been those raptors, the sea birds and sea mammals that have driven my lifelong interests in ecology and protection of the places we share with these creatures. So today I want to say a special thanks to Karen Wheatley, President, and Bev Day and her indispensable right and left hand Rob and his wondrous volunteers -- you care and you constantly make a difference -- thank you all from our Foundation, me personally and the eagles. As my dear departed friend "Gramma Tess" would have said: "It's about caring and sharing". You are setting the roots for so many more.
Also a special thanks to Christian, Rosana and Tina for all the contributions and the images attached.
Lets hope for another chapter: "Blueberry Is Back".
The following photos were taken by Christian Sasse, Karen Bills, Kathy Hansen and me. The collage was done by Diana Seear's daughter.
Hwy. 99 Boundary Bay Tower HWF Nest #152, Adult eagles sitting atop tower
Close-up of tower nest - Ma and sibling
Adult eagles just brought in branch.