The forest spirits giveth and taketh away

Lawrence Woodall searches for elk but finds a bald eagle instead.

I truly believe sometimes that there are contrary spirits that dwell deep in the forests, the type that switch things up just as you get too comfortable, thinking you know what’s going to happen next.

Since last July, almost every foray into the forest has been rewarded with sightings of Roosevelt elk, from herds of more than 30 animals to singular massive bulls.

Three weeks ago, on one of my favourite elk trails, I ran into two large bull elk and three black bears all inhabiting the same glade. There was poor light but I took some photos just for the record and, thank the powers for digital cameras, didn’t have to waste a penny on developing lousy photos.

I recently read an article about the relocation of Roosevelt elk into traditional territory in B.C., where they have gone the way of the dodo bird due to man’s progress. We have a reasonably healthy population but, of the six subspecies of red elk in North America, two have become extinct in the last 100 years — the Eastern and the Merriam Elk — with the Tule Elk pushed to the brink of extinction.

When you consider that both the Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk dwell in less than 30 percent of their traditional territory, and there are transplants underway to re-establish populations, what’s the time frame before man’s progress destroys the wilderness that supports these elk?

Putting two days aside to capture some fresh photos of elk, I could only smile after the first day: no sightings and no fresh signs — the forest spirits were playing games.

The second day was the same, all signs dried up drier than the Gobi desert. Oh there were a few bears, some deer, but none of the big guys.

Late afternoon on the second day out, a large meaty splash caught my attention, followed by raucous water fowl and more splashing.

Arriving at the marsh I saw an immature bald eagle swimming towards shore in my direction. It wasn’t until it was completely out of the water with its fine feathered meal, did it become aware of my presence.

Keeping an eye on me, it hopped onto a lower branch where it spread its soaked wings to sunbath, basically absorbing solar radiation to thermoregulate its metabolic rate.

It was at this point the 1972 campaign of ”Is it live or is it Memorex” came to mind, because young bald eagles are very similar to golden eagles, and there are specific traits that distinguish the two.

What caught my attention was the tawny nape and head, which can range from pale tawny to dark orange. From there I looked to the legs, which were covered with feathers all the way to the base of the toes, unlike a bald eagle who’s lower legs are unfettered. The final clue was the marbling of the tail feathers found in golden eagles.

It’s not just physical traits, behavioural traits also distinguish golden and bald eagles. Estimates are that up to 80 percent of second born golden chicks are killed and eaten by the first born. Too bad humans don’t incorporate this process or I could have dealt with a pack of pesky sisters.

The golden eagle made my day. In the interior and along the front range of the Rockies where they ride the thermals they are the norm, but they aren’t generally a wetland bird. They may hunt in a marsh as this one did, but it was most likely migrating through or wintering on the North Island.

As for the elk, they’ll just have to wait for another day, or perhaps the forest spirits were foreshadowing the elk’s future due to man’s ‘minimal impact’ progress.

Lawrence Woodall is a longtime naturalist who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.