For those of you that follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you will have seen my frequent posts about Bald Eagle sightings across the city. As mentioned previously, winter is my favourite time of year to view these majestic raptors within the city. During winter months, Bald Eagles will congregate in areas to feed and roost with the Thames River corridor providing a perfect location for both. When the breeding season arrives, Bald Eagles aggressively defend their territories from a variety of wildlife including other eagles. With multiple nest sites along the Thames River eagles can be observed year round, but winter is when the highest concentration of eagles are present.
I try to incorporate a walk along the Thames River into my daily routine. I find that combining walking and birding has great health benefits, both physical and mental. I can count on one hand the number of days that I have not made it down to the river this calendar year, and am happy to report at least one eagle sighting from every visit. My favourite stretch of river for viewing eagles is between Sanitorium Road at the west end of Springbank Park and Wharncliffe Road at the east end of Greenway Park.
Bald Eagles can be observed flying up and down the river as well as perched in trees along the river bank. A common roosting location is in the section of tall Poplar trees across from the Greenway Pollution Control Plant. The pathways throughout Springbank and Greenway parks are plowed and salted daily when needed, leaving bare asphalt exposed which makes for easy walking.
There are various year classes of Bald Eagle present along the Thames River this winter. Adult Bald Eagles reach maturity at five years of age, and are easily identified by their solid white heads and tails. Juvenile birds can be trickier to identify as their plumage varies considerably. Many people who I have spoken with along the river often confuse the young eagles for other large raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks.
On a recent walk through Springbank Park I observed a total of six Bald Eagles. Now before you go accusing me of counting the same bird repeatedly I can explain my observations. I started out from the parking lot at Storybook Gardens heading upstream. I stopped to observe and photograph a small flock of Common Redpolls feeding on the seed cones of a Speckled Alder tree. As I looked up an adult Bald Eagle passed by overhead. I was able to quickly adjust my camera settings and capture a few images as the bird passed.
Minutes later, I observed another eagle approaching from downstream with the first eagle still visible further up river. I waited patiently for the second eagle, it too an adult, to pass hoping for more photos, but unfortunately it flew behind me. I would have been shooting directly into the sun so I did not attempt any photos, and was content to just watch the second eagle pass by. I continued to photograph the redpolls before turning around and heading downstream.
Further downstream, just east of the Springbank Dam, I saw an eagle approaching from down river. Thinking at first that one of the previous two adults birds must have circled back down river without me noticing, I raised my camera and starting taking pictures. As the bird passed by overhead, I noticed that its head wasn’t completely white. This particular eagle still had several dark markings around its eye indicating that this bird was not fully mature and likely a fourth year bird.
After completing my walk, I headed back to my truck and proceeded to pack my camera back into its bag. I looked up into the sky and saw another Bald Eagle about to pass over the parking lot. I scrambled to get my camera back out of the bag and began snapping photos. This eagle was mostly dark underneath with some white under its wings and tail, a dark iris, and dark beak indicating a first year bird. As I photographed the eagle, two more juvenile eagles came into view. There were now three juvenile eagles circling overhead. I watched as the three young eagles soared; chasing and diving at one another as if playing. All three of these birds shared the same field markings, leading me to believe they could be siblings that fledged earlier this year from one of the area nest sites.
On previous days observing Bald Eagles on this stretch of the Thames River, I have noticed two other juvenile birds. These eagles vary from the other juvenile birds in that their plumage is more mottled, and their irises are transforming from dark to yellow. The field markings of these birds suggest they are in their 2nd or 3rd year.
From my observations so far this winter, I think it is safe to conclude that at least eight different Bald Eagles are frequenting this section of the Thames River: two adults, two second or third year juveniles, a fourth year bird, and three first year juveniles. Sightings have been reported along other sections of the Thames River, including the south branch through the SOHO neighbourhood as well as along the north branch.
As winter wears on and the breeding season approaches, the young eagles will search for a territory of their own as the mature birds that nest in the area drive them away. Bald Eagles begin nesting early in the year; if you wait too long you will lessen your chances of seeing one of these amazing birds. Their numbers seem to be peaking right now, so if you get the chance in the near future I highly recommend a walk along the banks of the Thames River.
*Click on the images in this post to view them larger*