By Dr. Dale Mierau
February 22, 2016
Figure 1. Frequent and intense lightning during the night of June 7.
A severe and protracted lighting storm during the night of June 7, 2015 was a harbinger of things to come for the Lac La Ronge area (Figure 1).
I observe Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) on Lac La Ronge in Northern Saskatchewan during the breeding season between May and October.
Lac La Ronge is a large glacial lake in the Precambrian Shield with a shore length of 631 miles and a surface area of 546 square miles. The lake is dotted with 1305 rocky islands scattered among large tracts of open water. Lake travel can be challenging due to the large tracts of open water and the high variability of depth, which can vary from 50 meters to rocks-at-the-surface in a span of less than 5 meters.
The spring of 2015 was mild and storm free on the North American prairies. This resulted in a relatively stress free annual migration of Bald Eagles to breeding grounds in Northern Canada. The Bald Eagles arrived at Lac La Ronge in good physical condition and ready for a productive breeding season.
There were nine occupied nests in the area of observation in the spring of 2015. During the first week of June, I observed ten Bald Eagle nestlings in six nests.
Figure 2. Billows of smoke filled the southern and southwestern horizon on the morning of June 8.
On the morning of June 8 the south and west horizon was dominated by smoke from fires that erupted during the previous night (Figure 2).
Figure 3. A wall of fire to the south, west and north of La Ronge.
The wildfire spread and approached the towns of Air Ronge and La Ronge (figure 3).
Figure 4. A Saskatchewan water bomber dropping a load to contain a blaze.
Airborne firefighting was fierce with water bombers and flying cranes (Figure 4).
Figure 5. A Quebec water bomber heads off to refuel.
The army was called and firefighting equipment arrived from as distant as Quebec, Newfoundland and the United States (Figure 5).
Figure 6. An eerie evening. Absolutely no sound, no wind and a red atmosphere (Pentax K-5, Focal length 31 mm, ISO 400, 1/125 sec, F/9.5,)
The pleasant local summer environment was replaced with an uninspiring ‘grey’, sometimes punctuated by an eerie red glow (Figure 6).
The dense smoke irritated the eyes, interfered with visibility and made outdoor activity difficult due to labored breathing. Smoke was to be a near constant companion for over a month until late July. Much of the time boat travel on the lake was dangerous due to poor visibility (Figure 7).
Figure 7. The Jackson Island nest is in a birch tree beside the tallest tree on the island at the extreme right of the image.
I have GPS routes to each nest and attempted to visit the nests daily but travel was risky and help would not be available to me in the event of something unforeseen. When I did venture out photographing Bald Eagle behaviour on most days was unproductive (Figure 8).
Figure 8. The fledgling at the Jackson Island nest, partially obscured by smoke.
Most people, who worked or spent time on the lake in the summer, left due to the threat of fire or the dense smoke. On July 5, the authorities enacted a mandatory evacuation to the towns of Air Ronge, La Ronge and surrounding area. The air space was closed to all activity but firefighting. After the evacuation the lake was nearly void of human activity and all that could be heard was the drone of firefighting aircraft. The emergency personnel that remained, and all resources (including the armed forces) were kept busy by the fires that had raged for weeks and would rage for weeks more. The single road into the town from the south did not open for traffic until July 17, when the air space over the town and surrounding area also opened. During the summer of 2015 wildfires destroyed over 6500 square miles of forest in Saskatchewan.
Bald Eagle Nests on islands were not affected by fire. However, the Bald Eagle families were affected by dense smoke. I travelled to nests when a wind shift allowed a temporary respite from the very dense smoke. Two surviving young were visible at the nest on Archer Island on July 7 (Figure 9).
Figure 9. The two fledglings at the Archer Island nest on July 7.
However, on July 8, only the older of the two nestlings was visible over the rim of the nest.
Figure 10. The survivor at the Archer Island nest shortly after losing his younger sibling.
The nestling at the Jackson Island nest also survived. The eight other nestlings likely starved due to poor visibility that interfered with the parents’ ability to provide food.
The weather turned for the better in Late July with cooler temperatures and rain. It was then safe make regular rounds to productive nests, now reduced to two from the former six, to observe the two surviving nestlings.
Life for Bald Eagles became tough again when it became hot and dry just before the August 1 (Figure 11).
Figure 11. A large plume of smoke reappears on the northwest horizon on the morning of August 1.
A massive fire at the northeast border of the lake attracted much attention as authorities tried to limit the loss of property (Figure 12).
Figure 12. Large deployment of resources, energy and funding to prevent losses due to fire at Hunter Bay on August 1. (Pentax K-3, Focal length 420 mm, ISO 400, 1/1000 sec, F/6.3)
The surviving male fledgling at the Archer Island nest thrived and was moving toward self-reliance on schedule. (Figure 13).
Figure 13. A fine specimen of a male Bald Eagle fledgling on his perch beside the nest amusing himself with the antics of a squirrel that is out of sight just below the lower edge of the frame.
The survivor at the Jackson Island nest was not as robust as her counterpart at the Archer nest.
She was late to leave the nest. When she finally did leave, she had trouble learning to land without mishap and did not, or was unable, to return to the nest for nearly a week. She always appeared disheveled and scruffy with feathers in disarray (Figure 14).
Figure 14. The Jackson fledgling clinging to a branch trying to get some rest on a windy day.
During the time that she was away from the nest her parents fed her on a rocky outcropping (Figure 15).
Figure 15. The Jackson Island fledgling eating a small cisco that was left for her on an exposed rocky outcropping near the nest.
She was still pestering and screaming at her parents in mid September (Figure 16).
Figure 15. The fledgling at the Jackson nest pestering her parent, stationed on a hunting perch on an island remote to, but near, the nest island.
In late September, she continued to wait on rock outcroppings to be fed, well past the time that she should be have been hunting on her own (Figure 17).
Figure 17. The Jackson Island fledgling, a sorry site, waiting to be fed on a barren outcropping near the small island with a hunting perch.
When I left for the south in late September I had not yet seen her feed herself. Chances are slim that she would survive the perilous four to eight weeks of migration south.
Dale Mierau is an amateur photographer living in Saskatoon, SK. He uses digital imagery to document the behaviour of Bald Eagles during the breeding season in late spring, summer and early fall on Lac La Ronge SK.
Previous articles by Dale Mierau
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