Bald eagles spotted around city

By: Kristyne E. Demske, | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 19, 2016

ST. CLAIR SHORES — While you can easily catch them at the zoo or in a bird show, it still seems to surprise residents when they spot the symbol of the country hanging around a local field or backyard.

“We were driving down Jefferson and we looked at this bird. ... We ran back home and she got her camera. These pictures were amazing,” said Cathy Sitek, of St. Clair Shores. 

Sitek and her daughter, 15-year-old Jenna DeNardo, spotted a pair of bald eagles in the trees of the field across from the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, on the border of St. Clair Shores and Grosse Pointe Shores, at the end of December. Since DeNardo had just received a new camera for Christmas, the pair decided to turn around and grab it from their home in an effort to capture the images.

 An eagle perches in a tree north of Veterans Memorial Park in January.

An eagle perches in a tree north of Veterans Memorial Park in January.

Photo provided by Ted Vikar

“I’ve been trying to see an eagle my whole life, and to have a camera and have it (nearby), it’s amazing,” Sitek said. 

DeNardo said she hadn’t thought to use her camera on wildlife before, and was very surprised when they spotted the eagles in the wild.

“I know they exist, but I didn’t really think there would be two of them in the area, like there were a pair or something,” she said. “It was kind of like a spur-of-the-moment thing, I didn’t think that would happen, to take pictures of something that significant.”

Karen Cleveland, an all-bird biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said that, luckily, this sort of occurrence isn’t as rare as it was in past decades.

“If this were 1972, it would be highly, highly unique,” she said. “The good news is that eagles started to get a lot more protection in the 1970s when DDT and PCBs” were damaging egg shells. 

The pesticides and chemicals dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) caused birth defects like egg shell thinning so that eagle chicks couldn’t survive to birth. 

“That happened to our eagle eggs and our peregrine eggs and osprey eggs. We lost a lot of eagles across the state,” Cleveland said. 

But when the chemicals were restricted, they began to slowly work their way out of the ecosystem, which is why the eagles now are able to lay eggs and have chicks that are able to survive.

“Eagles are no longer an endangered species,” she said. “There are eagle nests all the way down to the Ohio state line. 

“It wouldn’t shock me in the least if you’ve got eagles who are breeding along the lake shore.”

There are more abundant eagle populations further north in the state and into the Upper Peninsula because the chemicals were not used as much in those areas. Over the years, Cleveland said, those eagle chicks began expanding south as they grew and helped begin the recovery of the bird population in southeast Michigan.

“We actually had a pair of eagles attempt to nest in downtown Lansing last year,” she said.

Across the state, there are 750-800 eagle nests. According to the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in East Lansing, however, there are only two nests in Macomb County. Eagles move around more in the winter, though, and Jack Dingledine, assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that means that it is more common to see eagles near the shoreline and near other open bodies of water.

While eagles are territorial in the summer when they are nesting, winter behavior is different because they are not worried about defending their territory. It’s not entirely uncommon to see dozens of eagles “hanging out together” in the winter, Cleveland said, because they’re just worried about finding food where they won’t be attacked by predators.

“They love roadkill deer. They’re meat eaters. They will basically eat easy meat,” she said. “We’ve got an abundant food source around here (southeast Michigan), so in the wintertime, it’s not a shock.”

But local residents are still surprised when they see the birds. On the opposite end of the city, Cheryl Vikar and her husband, Ted, were also startled to see bald eagles near their home. They live a few lots north of Veterans Memorial Park and spotted an eagle sitting in a tree in the lot just north of the park.

“The thing is huge,” Vikar said. “The other day, he was showing me a picture — there had been a female, and she was standing out on the ice and had a fish in her claw.”

Living along Lake St. Clair for nearly two decades, the Vikars are familiar with seeing hawks and even sometimes coyotes, who walk north on the ice from Grosse Pointe.

“I don’t know, before this season, if I had ever noticed an eagle before. We’ve been there 19 years. It was the first time that I recall,” she said. 

Cleveland said it’s exciting that the eagle population has rebounded such that residents can spot them in the wild.

“It’s something for us to get a warm, fuzzy feeling about because it means that the environment is getting closer to what it ought to be before we went out and poisoned things,” she said. “It’s a very positive sign. It’s really exciting and it’s great.”