Tom Ross' column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Longtime Steamboat Today reader Ron McLeod came to me this week with a story about two golden eagles that visited his rural Routt County home in a drama that played out like a National Geographic wildlife documentary.
McLeod and his wife have lived for 23 years off Routt County Road 46 in a high mountain meadow that overlooks a small lake surrounded by wetlands called Lake Windemere. The marshy area and the nearby Elk River attract wildlife of all descriptions, McLeod said, and most notably many species of birds. In addition to the songbirds he means to attract, his bird feeders also draw in Columbian sharp-tailed grouse that are eager to peck away at the snow for the seeds that have been brushed off the feeders by smaller birds.
This is really McLeod’s story, and he tells it well, so I’m going to share it with you using his own words.
“On occasion we see the winged predators like hawks and eagles check out the comings and goings of the grouse,” McLeod wrote. “Still, we have seen the predators harvest only two grouse in all the years we have lived here."
Last week, McLeod was sitting at his dining table gazing out the windows at the comings and goings of the birds when a burst of movement caught his attention.
“Suddenly, coming across our meadow and establishing what I perceived to be an attack line aimed directly at my bird feeding station is this magnificent golden eagle!” McLeod wrote.
If you’ve ever seen a golden eagle up close, you’ll recall that they are unmistakable — and their wingspans are truly impressive. McLeod wrote that the clutch of grouse under the feeder at the time escaped without losing a feather, as the eagle continued in the direction of three young spruce trees that McLeod had encircled with 6-foot-high mesh fencing to protect them from deer and elk prone to rubbing their antlers on the trunks during the fall rut.
The eagle, instead of landing on one of the spruce limbs, alighted on the ground inside one of the 10-foot diameter fences. Once on the ground, the eagle’s movement was restricted not only by the metal mesh fence, but by the spruce limbs above his head. And he wasn’t happy.
“For the next 15 minutes this huge bird is in panic mode,” McLeod wrote. “He paced back and forth on the snow. He kept bumping the fence, and try as he may he can’t get out.”
McLeod thought of coming to the eagle’s aid with a pair of wire cutters, but fearing for his own safety, he decided against it. He made the right choice.
Within minutes a second, larger eagle came flying toward the spruce trees, and it dawned on McLeod that this was the first eagle’s mother coming to the rescue. And sure enough, the second eagle landed within the same enclosure as the trapped bird.
While the younger eagle continued to bounce off the metal fencing, the mother (we can’t really know its gender) appeared to survey its surroundings.
“After a short time, she made her first move,” McLeod wrote. “She reached over and gently tapped her youngster on the back of his neck, and then turned and reached as high as she could with her her beak and grasped the wire.”
McLeod described how the larger eagle pulled herself up until she could lock her talons onto the fence, then continued alternating between grasping the fencing with her beak and then her talons in a ratcheting motion.
Upon reaching the top of the fence, she spread her wings to catch a headwind and flew off in the direction of the Sleeping Giant mountain.
The younger bird, having calmed down enough to watch his elder, then repeated the mother’s technique and he too flew off.
“The moral of it all? Mom still knows best!” McLeod wrote.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com