I’m standing outside of Lake Hallie Golf with my clamshell of leftover fried walleye when an older gentleman shows me a 16x20 photo in a plastic sleeve. The two eagles are nearly life size.
“Do you want to buy this?” he pitches.
We’ve never seen each other before. Don Larson has no idea I’m writing a column about eagles on Lake Hallie; I don’t know I’ve just stumbled upon “The Eagle Man of Eau Claire” — a title his friend silk-screened on a T-shirt for him.
He regularly photographs five eagles’ nests around the Chippewa Valley, including across the road from Lake Hallie Golf’s hole Number 4 where this photo was snapped. Don recently compiled a 58-page book, “I Am the Eagle: Compelling Facts and Photos of Bald Eagles,” which he sells out of his car.
Eagles are a part of my daily life. They nest along our shore, and we hear their distinct screech throughout the day. Even after living here nine years, watching eagles pluck fat sunfish from Lake Hallie or hover over a family of swimming otters is still exciting for my city-slicker husband, Bruce.
I’m kayaking at dusk when I notice a large female roosting in my neighbor’s tallest tree. Looking up 30 feet, I am struck by her straight-backed magnificence, her gold beak and talons against the lush green foliage. Tonight her cry is louder and more urgent than usual. A smaller male flies past her and brushes the full front of her with the tips of his wings. One swoop. He soars high then falls into a steep dive toward the female. Two swoops. I can hear the whoosh of the male’s 5-foot wingspan as he approaches his mate. Three swoops. Four.
The female flies towards the male. Over my head the two lock talons and do a freefall. I paddle fiercely. I will not be hit by amorous fowl, no matter how great of a story it would make.
Later I discover this mid-air tousle is called a “cartwheel courtship flight.” Afterward they mate in a nearby tree. I look up Walt Whitman’s “The Dalliance of Eagles,” a poem Mr. Crowe taught us in 10th grade: “A living, fierce, gyrating wheel, / Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling…”
Given humans’ 50% divorce rate, we may find it romantic that eagles pair up for life. The year-round open water and access to fish on Lake Hallie mean this couple may have lived here as long as Bruce and I. They likely return to the same nest, used just for a few months to raise their young.
Even three decades ago this pair would have been a rare sight on Lake Hallie or anywhere in the country. Acid rain killed fish (eagles’ main sustenance), pesticides like DDT caused reproduction issues, and mercury and lead poisoned them. Despite the bird’s status as the national symbol of American strength and freedom — and emblazoned on most of our money — the eagle population was nearly decimated.
Since 1940, the Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibited harming or disturbing eagles, but it was the Endangered Species Act of 1973 which banned chemicals and habitat disruption and eventually contributed to a resurgence of eagles. The American Bald Eagle — not actually hairless: the name comes from the old English word “balde” or white — was one of the first species listed. In 2007 it was reclassified from “endangered” (close to extinction) to “threatened” (at risk of being endangered).
Weeks after meeting Don Larson, I join him for a drink at Lake Hallie Golf. He says the only eagles he saw as a kid were in a zoo. He grew up in Eau Claire and graduated from Memorial in 1959, the spring after Buddy Holly died. He was a fan long before Holly’s plane crash; he later became a Holly expert and music historian. His photos from Holly’s last Fournier’s Ballroom concert appear in the singer’s biography and in Waylon Jennings’ autobiography. Don wrote the 2018 memoir “To Me They Weren’t Stars, They Were Just My Friends.”
During the spring and summer he sits across the road from hole Number 4 up to five hours a day, camera on his lap, watching a nest in a tall pine for the eagle pair he’s dubbed “Ozzie and Harriet.” Don’s photo of them hangs at Lake Hallie Golf. He says, “I’ve never seen a bald eagle I didn’t like. It’s just a thrill to be close to them.”
When we chat at the clubhouse, golfers come to our table and ask about his eagles. He finds other eagle lovers, he tells me, like “two fishermen who ask each other ‘how they biting?’” He often sells them his prints.
If Don is the “Eagle Man of Eau Claire” Department of Natural Resources research scientist and eagle expert Laura Jaskiewicz is the “Eagle Woman of Wisconsin,” though no one has yet made her a t-shirt. She and other DNR biologists travel the state observing nests and monitoring the growing eagle population. She tells me, “I have always loved birds and wildlife. This led me to devote my life to protecting animals and their natural habitats.” If anyone discovers an eagle’s nest anywhere in Wisconsin, Laura wants to know.
In 1983, the Northern States Bald Eagle Recovery Plan was one of five regional teams, under authority of the ESA, to recommend specific strategies. Their team members — fish and wildlife, land management and park service officers along with a zoology professor — wrote, “The Plan is based on biological considerations and does not attempt to resolve social and political issues.”
Since January of 2017, the ESA has been under attack, threats that have recently become more dire. Newly proposed provisions to the law could mean the federal government considers the “economic impact” of saving a species rather than making a decision based solely on science. If these pass, oil and gas companies and the logging industry could drill or cut wherever they please. Manufacturers would no longer have to deal with the “regulatory burden” of pollution laws.
If the ESA goes extinct, likely so will 1,663 species of protected plants and animals. Right now, 1,275 are endangered and 388 are threatened — numbers that increase each year. The eagles on Lake Hallie are a concrete example of the tremendous impact the ESA made these past 46 years, and one of many reasons the law must continue to exist without provisions.
Don sets up his eagle viewing camera for his own enjoyment but also, he says, “to get kids away from video games.” He loves it when neighbors with young children join him on his lookouts. His mission is that our great grandchildren enjoy watching eagles in the wild and not just view them in old photos, like drawings of the long-gone dodo bird (last seen in 1681) or passenger pigeon (1914). Don says about his “Eagle Man” moniker: “I would gladly share the title with anybody.”