A bird’s eye view: Aug. 29, 2015

Published 4:34 pm Monday, August 31, 2015

Can Bald Eagles be found in Sumter County? You bet they can, and we are soon approaching one of the best times to see them: fall and winter.
For me I began seeing Sumter County adult Bald Eagles in November 2004, when I birded near Lakes Philema and Corinth in Sumter County. And on Nov. 26, 2004, I discovered a pair of adult birds. After telling my friend Jim Ozier, the Nongame Conservation Section Program Manager for Georgia Department  of Natural Resources, he indicated that I might search for a nest as the eagle pair was a very good indicator. Hours of walking and driving yielded nothing off Hooks Mill Road. I covered every cow trail on Powell’s Dairy Farm searching, but to no avail.
On Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004, Earl and Gloria Dunmon, who, at the time, lived at Lake Philema, told me they watched the pair of eagles for two hours on Christmas Eve day. Armed with that information, my birding pal Clive Rainey and I rode out to Lake Philema to some property owned by John Edgemon that we had permission to bird watch on. From the old boat ramp we could clearly see two adult Bald Eagles on the other side of the lake.  At some point I told Preston Powell of the find.
Brothers Preston and Richard Powell owned a huge dairy farm at that time on Hooks Mill Road milking over 1,000 head of beautiful Holsteins twice a day. Preston was kind enough to give me free access to the farm for bird watching. Even the farm hands like Dave Augood and Wesley Coston would flag me down to tell me what birds they had seen, when and where. And over the years Clive and I made some significant and rare bird discoveries on and near the farm. But on the morning of Jan. 8, 2005, a telephone call with a request from Preston Powell left me wondering “What have I gotten myself into”?
One of Preston’s sisters and her husband were visiting him from out of town. Preston’s request was simple enough: “Can you come over today after lunch and show my sister a Bald Eagle?”
What? Can he be serious? Granted, we had sporadic sightings of eagles on and around the farm, but how could I produce what he wanted? I pondered.
At 2:15 p.m. I met Preston and Sheila Powell, Preston’s sister Becky and her husband Coy along with local Americus birdwatcher Sue Dupree and Jane Knight from Columbus. Off we went in caravan-like style towards Lake Philema in search of Bald Eagles. My anxiety level had peaked as I felt like I didn’t want to disappoint anyone as the field guide.
Since Jane Knight had a brand new Toyota SUV with high clearance she insisted on driving with my 6’2” body in the backseat and four women in the vehicle. As we were crossing a field I asked Jane to stop the vehicle. A small spot in a tall pine across Lake Philema caught my eye and I wanted to investigate it. I quickly set up my spotting scope, got things focused and relief came upon me as I broke into a large smile. I was not only looking at a huge Bald Eagle nest, but there was an adult bird on the nest incubating eggs! Everyone took turns looking at the discovery.
Since that day many locals have told me they have had the privilege of seeing a Bald Eagle at various locations around the county. And while conducting the Lake Blackshear Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and which I volunteer for, we almost always find a Bald Eagle or two on the lake. I have not found the Lake Blackshear nest yet but will continue my search. Although moved to a different tree, the Lake Philema nest can still be seen from Old Hooks Road with optics like a binocular or spotting scope if you know exactly where to look.
The genus and species name for Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is Latin for “sea eagle, white head.” They are opportunistic feeders and will quite often feed on road kill as well as taking live prey such as American Coots. They are also more than capable of stealing food from other birds.
In 2014, Russell Smith and I went to Lake Blackshear to visit John and Lea Coe. While sitting in their living room that faces the big water, an Osprey suddenly plunged, feet first, into the water and came up with a fish. After getting airborne, the Osprey paused to shake some of the excess water from it’s plumage, then began to climb. It suddenly accelerated coming straight towards us with an adult Bald Eagle in hot pursuit. Twisting and turning like a jackrabbit trying to out-maneuver a coyote, the birds darted in and out of tree limbs with the eagle matching the Osprey wing beat for wing beat and turn for turn.  Wisely, the Osprey decided not to risk an eagle attack and dropped the fish. The eagle grabbed the fish in mid-air and flew off to enjoy a nice dinner stolen from the Osprey. This behavior is known as kleptoparasitism.
You never know what events you might see unfold if you will take time to watch our beautiful, native birds.

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.