Eagles return to Homer Spit

Posted: Wednesday, February 03, 2010

After Homer's beloved Eagle Lady, Jean Keene, died Jan. 13, 2009, bald eagle lovers worldwide wondered what would happen after Keene quit feeding. Under a Homer ordinance, Keene was the only person legally allowed to feed eagles within city limits. After her death, the Homer City Council allowed friends of Keene to feed until March 27, 2009.

With no one legally feeding this winter, would the eagles not return? Would they come back in numbers too small to be significant?

Eagle lovers, visitors and photographers can quit worrying. The eagles are back -- and in force.

"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten right out my front window," said Land's End Resort General Manager Patrick Cashman from his office at the hotel at the end of the Homer Spit.

"I'm looking out my window and counting six," said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins from his office at the harbor.

Over the past week, 50 to 80 eagles could be seen on the Spit. Perched on posts, roosting on roof tops or dawdling on driftwood logs, eagles gathered in twos and threes all over the Spit. One eagle has staked out a spot on top of the tsunami warning sirens near Mariner Park. A row of a dozen eagles sat on top of the ice plant at the fish dock. Another row of eagles lined up on the roofs of the Land's End Resort condos.

By Keene's old spot in the Homer Spit RV Campground, several eagles sat on logs. Keene's old trailer was moved, and all that remains to mark her old home is a driftwood tree stuck root-end up.

The Homer Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center gets calls weekly from visitors and photographers asking if it's still possible to see eagles in Homer.

"It's just such a rare phenomena," said Visitor Center Manager Sharon Ford. "You have tourists excited about that and wondering if they are or are not going to be abundant."

At Land's End Resort, where Keene kept court at her booth in the bar, photographers are still coming to see eagles, Cashman said. Robert O'Toole, a professional photographer teaching a workshop with 10 students, has booked a tour at Land's End in March, Cashman said.

"Even though Jean provided a unique situation, the opportunity to get a good image of an eagle with Kachemak Bay in the background is good enough photographers are still coming," he said.

Ford said the chamber has been telling visitors the same thing. "Just because she's not feeding them doesn't mean there aren't abundant opportunities for photography," Ford said.

Local birders have been counting eagles both before and while Keene fed. For the annual Christmas bird count, usually held the Saturday before Christmas, birders counted about 150 eagles in the Homer count area -- including the Homer Baling Facility at the top of Baycrest Hill -- said Dave Erikson, a longtime Homer birder and one of the organizers of the bird count. In the years before Keene fed eagles, they would see so few eagles that birders recorded the time of viewing so as to not double-count eagles.

For the February Backyard Bird Count, birders counted up to 385 eagles in Homer in 2009, said Lani Raymond, another local birder. This year's Backyard Bird Count is Feb. 12-15.

Raymond has been watching eagles the past month on the Spit and seen the numbers increase from about 35 earlier this month to 80. On two occasions she's seen what looks like intentional feeding, including an incident Saturday at Keene's old feeding spot. On Jan. 18 she photographed about 10 eagles feeding on a chunk of fat someone left in the parking lot at the end of the Spit. Eagles were swooping down around Keene's place, she said.

"When seeing eagles swooping down, that's very suspicious," Raymond said. "Somebody is feeding them a little bit."

Hawkins said he and harbor officers haven't seen anyone feeding eagles at the harbor. He also hasn't seen signs of eagles preying on sea gulls, ducks or other birds.

"I don't see them coming to the door begging for scraps either," Hawkins said, joking.

Another spot large numbers of eagles have been seen is at the baling facility -- the town dump. In spruce trees all around the landfill and on buildings, dozens of eagles perch. Ford suggests visitors try to see eagles from the Baycrest Hill turnout when the eagles fly along the bluff from the dump to the Spit about 3 or 4 p.m.

"Sometimes they're flying below you," Ford said. "You get the photos from farther away with the mountains in the backdrop."

It might be too early to tell the impact of the end of Keene's feeding on eagles, Erikson said. He suggested checking back in March to see how eagles have done over the winter. Eagles can fly far and wide to feed, he said. They tend to hunt by sitting on perches -- the typical behavior at the Spit -- and searching for anything dead that has washed up on the beach, like sea otters.

"They can cover a large area. If there isn't enough food on the Spit, they can go to the head of the bay, the south side of the bay," Erikson said. "They make use of what's available."

What visitors won't see now are eagles by the hundreds congregating around Keene's compound as she fed in the morning. Photographers who knew Keene or made friends with her also won't have the prime viewing she allowed in the area by her house.

"It's difficult to get the dynamic, in flight shots you had with Jean," said Homer photographer Don Pitcher. "It's never going to be the same again."

If getting good photos might take a bit more work, there is still plenty to photograph. "They seem to be hunting more out along the beach," Cashman said "You see them flying around more. They're not as stationary."

Without Keene feeding, the eagles will survive, Erikson said.

"They're a long-lived bird. Most predators are clever," he said. "They're very skilled at what they do. I don't think many eagles are going to starve to death without the feeding."

"Tell them to come out and see the eagles," Cashman said. "They're still here."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.

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