January 18, 2014 9:27:18 PM
On a recent Saturday morning an intrepid group of nature enthusiasts gathered on a strip of pavement at the eastern edge of Locafoma Lake in the Noxubee Wildlife Refuge. They had braved wind and sub-freezing temps in hopes of seeing the Refuge's resident eagles. They had not come in vain.
"This is going to be a five-eagle day," Margaret Copeland announced to the arriving hopefuls. Copeland, a white-haired 70-something with the energy of a 15-year-old, is the grande dame of birders in this part of the world. She was the native guide at this station of an event billed as Friends of the Noxubee Refuge Field Trip. Other stops included the Goose Overlook and a visit to the Eagle Nesting area.
The day was bright and clear and while the birders took turns looking through a scope at three eagles sitting on a partially submerged log, Copeland narrated.
"So far two mature bald eagles, three immature ones," she said.
The Refuge is home to two pairs of mating eagles. Rangers believe one of the females is nesting.
Mature bald eagles are 5 years or older, have white heads and when they are gliding through the air their wings are flat out, Copeland told the group. "A golden eagle's wingspan is dihedral, or a slightly upturned 'V'," she said.
Later, I mistakenly told a friend we had seen golden eagles. (We had not.) He assured me there are no golden eagles in this part of the country. When I called Copeland for clarification, recounting what my friend had said, she replied with characteristic bluntness, "He's absolutely wrong. We have photographic evidence of one in the Refuge."
She continued: "Who knows where birds go and what they do. As someone said, 'They have wings; they can go wherever they want.'"
The bald eagle is not only our national bird, it is our national animal, and "bald" refers to not a lack of covering on the head, but an older meaning of the word, "white-headed." These are spectacular creatures with wingspans as wide as 8 feet.
The eagle makes use of thermal convection currents (rising heat) and can reach speeds close to 100 miles per hour when in attack mode. They make their homes in old-growth forests -- it takes a large tree to support their nests, which can be 8 to 10 feet wide and just as deep -- and near large bodies of water. Diet consists of mostly fish, some waterfowl and carrion.
"What is he up to?" an onlooker asked Copeland. An eagle high and to the east appeared to be drifting aimlessly.
"He may just be flying to be flying," Copeland said.
Of course. Were you an eagle on a splendid morning such as this, why would you not be gliding in the skies, oblivious to the cluster of featherless bipeds below watching you with admiration and envy.
Someone asked about raptors or birds of prey: hawks, owls, buzzards.
"We don't have buzzards," Copeland said. "In Australia they have buzzards. Here we only have vultures."
What we see perched on the tops of silos or gathered about road kill are likely turkey vultures or black vultures, she said.
"Buzzard" comes from the Latin word "buteo," the genus name for several species of the type of bird North Americans call hawks. Europeans call these hawk-like birds buzzards.
According to the Turkey Vulture Society (there is such an organization, if the existence of a Facebook page is proof), this case of mistaken identity may date back to colonial times when European settlers wrongly called turkey vultures buzzards.
That misnomer has persisted; we all talk about buzzards. Not surprisingly, this was not the first time Copeland has set that record straight on this subject.
"I was at a party and this group of men told me they were members of the "Old Buzzards Club," Copeland said. "'Y'all need to be the vultures,' I told them.
"I was the center of that party for a minute or two," she said.
Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.