Jim Wilkes – Staff Reporter, Toronto Star
Are a couple of American icons making babies in a Hamilton marsh?
If successful, the pair of bald eagles nesting in a tall white pine in Cootes Paradise just might be breeding the first homegrown young on Lake Ontario’s north shore in 50 years.
The majestic creature, whose wingspan is more than two metres, is the national bird and a patriotic symbol of the United States.
The eagles were first spotted in the wilderness area west of Highway 403 in 2009, when the male was too immature to reproduce, said Tys Theijsmeijer, head of natural lands for Burlington’s Royal Botanical Gardens.
“We’ve just been waiting for the immature one to graduate to adulthood,” he said. “In the interim they built a nest.”
Last year, the big birds moved to another pine tree in the area, so this year work crews cleared an area in a tree near a public viewing platform along the marsh’s boardwalk to encourage the birds to settle where naturalists could monitor them more easily.
But the eagles moved back to their original home last month, about half a kilometre from the closet vantage point.
“It’s nice to know they’re smarter than us,” Theijsmeijer said.
He said no one really knows if the female has laid eggs yet, but bird watchers are keeping their fingers crossed.
“We’re pretty sure that if they were going to lay eggs it was in the past two weeks,” he explained. “So we’re looking at mid to late April to see little heads poking up in the nest.”
A hundred years ago, bald eagles were a common sight along Lake Ontario. But toxic pesticides slowly killed off most of the population.
“The water became polluted with DDT used in agriculture that washed off the land into the lake,” Theijsmeijer said. “The poison got into the fish, the birds ate the fish and it caused the shells of the birds to be thin and shatter.
“So we just ran out of bald eagles.”
DDT was banned in the United States in 1972 and in Canada in 1989, although its use had been restricted for more than a decade before that.
Theijsmeijer said that by 1980, only four bald eagle nests remained in southern Ontario.
He said there are now about 32 nests along the lower Great Lakes, including areas north of Toronto and near Peterborough.
“It’s been a slow but steady climb back,” he said. “We’re finally getting the big bird back to the big lake.”
The bald eagles at Cootes Paradise kept a low profile on Tuesday, hunkering down in their nest for long periods, making just a few forays out to sit in another tree before returning home.
“More often than not, they’re really not doing anything, unless they go hunting and you just see them circling,” Theijsmeijer said, manoeuvring an aluminum boat to give visitors a closer look.
He said he hopes efforts to clean up the area and make a nurturing habitat for the eagles will pay off.
“Maybe 50 years from now the shoreline will be strewn with so many bald eagles that they’ll be commonplace once again.”