A massive tree fell in an Eau Claire woods, and a number of people noticed.
While residents living near the white pine that towered above Putnam Park may not have heard it crash to the ground in Friday’s thunderstorm, the impact still reverberated among local eagle watchers.
The tree, located just east of UW-Eau Claire along Putnam Drive, was well known as the longtime home of a bald eagle nest.
“It’s kind of sad,” said Jim Hoeppner, who enjoyed watching the eagles through the back window of his 3rd Ward home. “It was such a mighty old tree, but white pines don’t last forever in the Midwest.”
Hoeppner, who hiked into the park Tuesday to see remnants of the fallen tree, recalled that the young eaglets often would practice flying just a few feet above the ground in his backyard and then occasionally land on his roof.
“It was fabulous,” he said of Mother Nature’s air show.
The good news, Hoeppner and other neighborhood residents said, is that the eagles hadn’t occupied that nest for several years, so no eaglets would have been harmed when the tree went down.
A pair of eagles now occupies a different nest in Putnam Park, said 3rd Ward resident Tim Hirsch, who believes eagles have used three different nests in the park over the last 20 years. Eagles typically build nests up to 5 feet in diameter and 3 feet deep in one of the tallest trees in their territory.
The nest in the fallen tree was taken over a few years ago by a great horned owl family, the men said, although Hoeppner doesn’t believe the owls were occupying the nest this year.
“It does happen that trees with an eagle nest come down sometimes, and typically the pair will just choose a new tree in the area,” said Dean Edlin, a conservation biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
Bald eagles have enjoyed a remarkable recovery in Wisconsin and nationwide since being placed on the state and federal endangered species lists in the 1970s.
That recovery is particularly noticeable in western Wisconsin, Edlin said, pointing out that the agency’s 2018 aerial survey identified a record 1,695 active eagle nests in Wisconsin, including 10 in Eau Claire County, 11 in Chippewa County and 12 in Dunn County. That’s up from 107 statewide in 1974.
“Eagles are just really increasing in this part of the state,” Edlin said, adding that eagle nests have been spotted about every 2 miles along the Chippewa River from Eau Claire to the Mississippi River.
Despite being removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997 and from the federal list in 2007, the white-headed national symbol, with its 6-foot wingspan, remains a favorite species for bird-watchers and ordinary residents alike to spot soaring over the city.
For years, the old eagle nest in 230-acre Putnam Park attracted photographers seeking to capture the bald eagles as they reared their young in the nest right in the central part of the city.
Retired Lutheran pastor Gordon Thorpe and his late wife, Gloria, enjoyed a spectacular, bird’s-eye view of the nest from their home off East Clairemont Ave., perched along the top of the bluff on the south side of Putnam Park. The couple often allowed photographers, including one from the Leader-Telegram, access to their property to capture the eagles in action.
“We had people sitting on our deck sometimes from dawn to dusk waiting for that perfect shot,” Gordon recalled Tuesday.
When the eagles first took up residence in the tree, Gordon said they could look right into the nest from their deck, but the view gradually became less clear as the pine grew and the surrounding canopy got thicker.
“When the eagles stopped using that nest, it was sad, almost like a distant family member had died,” he said, speculating that perhaps the eagles sensed the tree was no longer stable.
Gloria was so transfixed by the view of the eagles right out of the couple’s window that she kept a diary with her observations about the creatures for years.
On April 26, 1999, for instance, her eagle eye spotted two eaglets in the nest, with adults being very attentive. She continued to monitor the juveniles’ progress as they grew feathers, competed for food and learned to fly.
“The eaglets are very vocal,” Gloria wrote. “We can hear when the food is being brought to the nest. The food seems to consist of fish, furry rodents and feathered friends.”
On July 10, 1999, she observed, “This morning only the mom was sitting by the nest — no eaglets — as if to say ‘My job is over. Well done.’ “
Two decades later, that original nest may be gone, but neighbors are pleased to report that eagles continue to thrive in the 110-year-old park.