Displaying items by tag: stephen bales
Is the bald eagle's remarkable comeback fading down the stretch?
(Part one in a series)
It was a damp morning in early spring 2005 when Paul James and I met Linda Claussen at Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge along the French Broad River in east Knox County. Heavy rains had fallen through the night, but the clouds were beginning to break. As we walked down Kelly Lane toward the river the vocalized yearnings of thousands of chorus frogs could be heard singing from the soppy floodplain along the river. Spring was definitely here.
The refuge itself was the brainchild of Linda’s late husband, Pete. In the late 1990s, he formed the Seven Islands Foundation, a privately owned land conservancy, and began setting aside property to be protected and restored to a variety of natural habitats. Most of the acreage had recently been fescue pasture maintained for grazing livestock and hay production.
Seven Islands State Birding Park is now the refuge the Claussens imagined 20 years ago. What typically strikes the casual visitor is the overall lay of the land because the narrow roadway opens up to a dramatic sylvan panorama with the Great Smokies off in the distance. It’s an excellent place to view the valley, but in early 2005, we were there for more than just a tour of the idyllic property, Linda was enthused for another reason. Of course, being enthused was an everyday occurrence for her; but on this day, she had something truly remarkable to show us.
Perhaps the wide river or the pastoral remoteness of the location itself attracted the refuge’s newest residents, for we had only walked about 10 minutes down the paved rural roadway when I spotted the first white head. We were at least 300 yards away, but its form was unmistakable. An adult bald eagle was perched on a bare sycamore branch 40 or 50 feet above the swirling water. It was looking upstream over the rich bottom land, surveying its territory. The regal raptor was not alone, for behind it, high in another sycamore, was a classic stick nest as big as a household stove, except conical, like a funnel. A second eagle hunkered down in the nest, incubating.
Much to my companions’ surprise, I whooped with the zeal of an 8-year-old. As the crow flies, Seven Islands is slightly less than 12 miles northeast of my Chapman Ridge home, practically my backyard. The nascent refuge had proven the wisdom to the “Field of Dreams” adage: “If you build it, they will come.”
'Lord God Bird' of lore, a sad reminder of what we have lost
We stood agape. Before us, on a white countertop as big as a ping pong table, lay 17 dead ivory-billed woodpeckers. They were museum specimens neatly arranged in two groups: nine males and eight females, all lined up like ears of corn in separate wooden trays. Each had a paper label attached to a leg with handwritten notation of when and where it had been collected; most seemed to date from the late 1800s. Being in the presence of so many rendered us reverently speechless.
The Knoxville History Project’s Paul James and I were in the cellar of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History at the time. Surrounding us were row after row of 10-foot, pale-green metal cabinets, lockers with wooden drawers filled with museum specimens. In addition to the 17 Campephilus principalis organized in the wooden trays before us, there was also one lone male mounted on a log for display purposes. All eighteen are part of the more than 640,000 avian specimens housed at the museum, which is in the nation’s capital cattycornered to the Washington Monument.
“We receive anywhere between one and 4,000 new specimens a year,” remarked the museum’s curator of birds at the time James Dean. “Many are donated by families that discover ‘grandfather’s collection’ stored in the attic.”
Call it fortuitous. When Paul arranged the meeting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was this country’s most ethereal bird; although not officially pronounced extinct it had last been documented in the swamps of Louisiana over 60 years ago. Contemporary field guides no longer include the ivorybill, America’s largest woodpecker, for they have been written off as being eliminated long ago. In the 1800s, when folks caught a fleeting glimpse of an ivory-bill they’d gasp, saying, “Lord God, what a bird,” or simply, “Lord God Bird!” So, how could this magnificent bird, black-and-white, crow-sized bird with a loud “kient, kient-kient, kient” vocalization go undetected in our modern world?