One morning several years ago, a friend and I slipped a canoe into Wisconsin's Brule River on a late March morning. We were there mainly because we wanted to be on open water after a long winter. We didn't know that the day would remain lodged in our memories for years afterward.
In just a few hours, we saw 34 or 35 bald eagles overhead or perched in lofty white pines along shore. It isn't uncommon to see eagles along the river this time of year during their migration, but we had never witnessed so many of eagles at such close range. Again and again, one of them would drop out of its perch and swoop low over water. They flew directly over us at startlingly close range. I recall one in particular, powering upstream right at the canoe. It looked as if its wing tips were brushing the cedars on both sides of the river.
I was recalling that day when I learned recently that counters with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory had observed a North American record 1,076 bald eagles streaming north over Duluth on March 21, as reported by News Tribune outdoors writer John Myers. John Richardson and Frank Nicoletti, counting along West Skyline Parkway, documented the impressive movement. That astounding single-day total topped the previous record of 822 in 2004, Nicoletti said.
"The bald eagles were moving in groups of up to 50 at times!" Nicoletti wrote in an email to me.
While bald eagles migrate over Hawk Ridge in eastern Duluth in good numbers each fall during migration, they tend to come in more concentrated waves in the spring. They're moving with urgency to set up nesting territories. By the end of March, more than 4,800 bald eagles had been counted over Duluth, Nicoletti said, and he estimated this spring's total migration would top 6,000.
"In the world of hawk watching, this is unprecedented and a truly remarkable testament to all of those who worked hard to make the recovery of the bald eagle," Nicoletti said.
The eagle population had plummeted in the mid-1900s due largely to the widespread use of DDT, which weakened their egg shells. After DDT was banned in the early 1970s, America's bald eagle population rebounded strongly.
Many of us, through sheer luck or purposeful pursuit, have witnessed thrilling passages of wildlife like the recent eagle movement. Most of these encounters are the result of mass migrations or the drive to perpetuate the species.
Many steelhead anglers have stood near falls on North Shore streams as one of these big rainbows after another attempts to leap the moving water on its spring spawning run. One day on the Knife River, I watched in awe as the big trout made attempt after attempt to clear a set of falls and move on upstream.
One steel-gray late September day on Basswood Lake north of Ely long ago, a fellow canoeist and I came upon a flotilla of at least 75 common loons gathered together. We guessed they must have been staging for migration.
Witnessing one of these collective movements of wild creatures stirs something deep in one's soul, and some are of truly epic proportions. One day in mid-September of 2003, Duluth birders witnessed a migration of more than 100,000 broadwing hawks over Hawk Ridge. Each spring, some 400,000 to 800,000 migrating sandhill cranes converge on a stretch of Nebraska's Platte River. And nearly two million wildebeest migrate between Tanzania and Kenya each year in a continuous circuit of some 2,000 miles.
Wild things do what they must to advance the cause of their species. Once in a while, it's our humble privilege to witness such an event.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.