They say it was the coldest Winter since the Great Depression, it was cold enough for the Sound to freeze and that hasn’t happened in about a decade. The area between City and Hart Islands extending south to Long Island’s north shore was several square miles of ice. The regular barge traffic was reduced to an occasional large tanker that would cut a path through the ice sheet which would buckle and break several feet in front of its flat bow. A few inches of snow fell over the weekend as the numerous ice sheets fused into one, leaving a rough snowy surface that by Monday morning became windswept.
It is always a beautiful sight because it is always a little different, this time more than usual. At breakfast, the boys were fascinated to watch a seagull eating something that had become stranded on the ice. The rising sun accentuated the red blood against the gray ice. By the time they left for school, nothing remained except the stain. Returning home from some lunchtime errands, I looked out and noticed a couple of unusually large birds eating another stranded snack. Were the neighbors’ chickens ranging too freely? Inside I got my binoculars and saw these were no chickens. One had some white on his head but didn’t look like Oscar or Olivia, the ospreys who summer in the area. The other was all brown with white speckles, not the opposite seen on hawks. Irene got the bird book and we saw hawks and ospreys have white bellies and legs, these were covered with thick brown feathers right down to their yellow feet. Could a couple of adolescent bald eagles be right outside our living room? It was hard to believe but golden eagles would be even more unlikely and there couldn’t be much else, according to the book.
As we ate lunch, we watched the two beautiful creatures patiently taking turns eating a small duck stuck in the ice; they behaved less like siblings who each wanted to eat the same bird and more like a monogamous couple sharing some bounty. We named the one with some white on his head George and the younger one Martha. Carefully holding our little pocket camera above the telescope’s eyepiece just right enabled us to get a couple of worthy pictures among most that lost focus or light. When I brought the telescope out to the deck they flew away.
I was in my office the next morning when Irene called out “they’re back and there’s a third one!” This third one removed all doubt; his bright white head gleamed in the sun, a striking contrast against his dark brown feathers. The family of three bald eagles was dining on the same frozen duck, all politely taking their turn. We watched the spectacle in amazement through the telescope and binoculars. This distinguished old timer we named Benjamin and after about a half hour he flew off to the east. The sight of his thick dark wings punctuated by his bright white head and tail reminded us of our trips to Alaska.
George and Martha flew over to the southern end of Hart Island and pestered a group of ducks in a scarce patch of water near the shore. The little black ducks would scurry away as the majestic birds hovered several feet above them before diving down into the flock. They didn’t catch any but maybe they were just engaged in youthful escapades. The pair of young eagles took a break on a couple of tree branches before spending the rest of the afternoon along the trail made by the tankers, eating fish caught on the wrong side of the ice. They disappeared east of Hart Island before the grey afternoon turned dark.
After sunrise the next morning, we were scanning the ice sheet and noticed them during breakfast back on their perches at the southern end of Hart. The boys finally got to see the eagles. “Hands behind your backs, don’t touch the telescope.” I don’t think the 4 year old could manage to close one eye as I held him up but he said it was cool. His 6 and 8 year old brothers realized why this magnificent bird is the symbol of our great country. After the kids left for school another distinguished baldy arrived and sat with the other three on a nearby branch. Thomas! A few minutes passed and the two seniors flew off to the north leaving the adolescents at their new favorite spot.
Irene came back later than usual and I couldn’t wait to tell her about Thomas. She asked what time they flew off, it happened to be when she was taking a walk on the eastern end of the Orchard Beach promenade and spotted Ben on a branch above her. She spoke to him for a few minutes as he surveyed the area and posed for a cell phone picture. Ben took a liking to Irene and came back later to check on the young ones. I came home late Wednesday night to see some spectacular video that she managed to get with the pocket camera held above the telescope.
Thursday morning, when we sat down for breakfast, so did the family of four bald eagles in view a mile across the water. It was hard to make it up to the office where I couldn’t see our new frozen plain. At any time that day we could see between two and four eagles mostly traversing the trail that the tankers made. The southern tip of Hart Island became their perch and by late afternoon we spotted a fifth. That would be John. They were flying around having fun and the boys were huddled by the dining room door taking turns on the telescope focused on Hart Island. I had my binoculars trained on Ben and George flying from the distance towards us. They got closer and closer, flying low almost at the height of our dining room floor. I was looking Ben right in his eyes while George followed him closely. They got bigger and bigger in my view until they turned upwards in front of our house with their gigantic wings spread wide as they turned back to Hart. “Get the video camera Irene.” They flew around for a little while until taking a rest when the grey day began to turn dark; we managed to get a picture of all five in the trees at once. Then we noticed a sixth and seventh who flew off towards Huckleberry Island. James and Alexander! Our excitement was rubbing off on the boys who were also getting a lesson about the founders.
I took the various pictures and video clips worth keeping and put them together on my computer’s movie maker software. You can see it by searching “Bronx Bald Eagles” on YouTube. Friday morning, the three returned to their perch at breakfast time but George and Martha flew out of sight towards Huckleberry soon afterwards. Ben remained along the tanker path where he stood in the sunlight with broad shoulders that looked to be supporting a stately cape. At one point when he turned his head he looked like he was standing on the back of a quarter. Going to the fitness center at lunchtime, I saw Martha (or another young one) in a tree in the Orchard Beach traffic circle. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they were moving into the area to stay!
In my meditative state on the stationary bike I had another thought. Maybe the young eagles were actually Big Bloom and Fallen Leaves, the recently departed former Sagamore and Chief of the Huckleberry Indians. I liked to think Ben was Ground Money, The Eagle himself in his 11th winter in the Happy Hunting Grounds. Maybe the others were Bring Um Shows, Million Dollar Brave, Wise West Wind and Bronze Belly, or any of the other departed braves who came to welcome their brother Fund Raiser to their ranks that have been growing for more than 125 years. They will surely be celebrating his arrival as we all have on a regular basis. As the Navy League has for about half that time. As this brave has since even before he extended a favor twenty years ago that changed my life.
A couple of friends wanted to come by to see the eagles but when I returned home they were gone. The bright afternoon evolved into a beautiful sunset turning the ice sheet pink against the expanding dark green water. I could only imagine what those white heads would have looked like in the colorful light. I was left to appreciate a frozen orange swirl in the middle of the textured water and a V formation of Canadian geese flying north across the purple sky. Even without eagles, it is always a beautiful sight. It was cold overnight and the ice sheet enlarged by dawn. It was a grey day like the others but no eagles, nor the next snowy day. The kids had extra time Monday morning to look for our national symbols but they must have been frolicking elsewhere. Their visit was a mere gift that they are undoubtedly now sharing with others. Like our friend whose very Indian name recognizes how he has always been a man for others. Godspeed Victor.
- Keeper of Stocks
Bronx Bald Eagles https://youtu.be/24fyHqSk-mA
BY: Dan Hickey