On a recent October morning, the sky above the west pond was full of hundreds of Canada geese and mallards. What would cause the birds to flush like that? Mark had a hunch, and sure enough, shortly after that a bald eagle was spotted flying over the pond hoping to capture a meal.
Shortly after that, we drove along Goose Pond Road and saw all the birds back in the water or loafing on top of the muskrat houses, along with an adult bald eagle that was also perched on a muskrat house. The eagle took off when we backed up the truck to position ourselves for a photo opp, and came to rest high atop a spruce tree in the Manthe farm yard located just north of Goose Pond.
Rewind to the fall of 2013 when a pair of eagles frequently flushed and hunted 3,000 migrating American coots at Goose Pond. They probably caught a few muskrats to eat as well. Shortly after the pond iced over, the eagles broke off dead sapling cottonwoods and took them to the red-tailed hawk nest they took over, located in a spruce tree at the Manthe yard... yes, the same one we saw the eagle land on that morning four years later.
The adults worked on the nest for about three weeks that year. Then in 2014 they abandoned that nest and have nested every year about three miles north of Goose Pond. The adults still visit and hunt at Goose Pond, and even visit the spruce trees in our yard. It is great to be able to see our national symbol in southern Wisconsin, especially during the nesting season.
Nesting bald eagles in southern Wisconsin have not always been so common. Sam Robbins wrote in the 1991 Wisconsin Birdlife that eagles were uncommon resident in north and central Wisconsin, and no mention was made of nesting eagles in southern Wisconsin. Kumlien and Hollister observed a decline in the eagles nesting in southern Wisconsin around the end of the nineteen century as settlement increased.
Robbins wrote that the low point for the eagle population was in the 1960’s with the cause being the widespread use of DDT. From the 1960s to 1990 populations slowly rose. In 1989 the bald eagle was moved from state-endangered to state-threatened. Currently the bald eagle is listed as a species of special concern, the least concerning status of the three.
In the first breeding bird atlas (1995 – 2000), there was one nesting pair on the Pine Island State Wildlife Area in Columbia County near Portage.
Now after the third year of the Breeding Bird Atlas II, we have records of 15 nesting pairs in Columbia County. The most unusual location is in a three-acre woodland adjacent to a farmette surrounded by cropland, about 10 miles east of Goose Pond Sanctuary and one mile from the Crawfish River. However, at that location the Crawfish River is very narrow and its banks are lined with brush – not ideal fishing habitat. It is quite possible that those eagles are making a living feeding on road kill, especially deer, raccoons, and opossums.
Thanks to the photographers that provided the beautiful photos, and hopefully you will observe these photogenic birds this fall at Goose Pond. The Sanctuary is free and open to all during daylight hours.
By Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers