ALUM ROCK — Jon Menard knows where the eagles fly.
The Vietnam veteran and long-time employee of the Mount Vernon Post Office devotes a week of vacation every January to help the Ohio Department of Natural Resources perform a census of bald eagles in Ohio. Menard and a handful of other enthusiasts have become enamored with the majestic birds, which, although rare in Ohio, are becoming increasingly more plentiful with the passing years.
In the 1970s, pollution nearly wiped out the birds, which have been national symbols of the United States for over 200 years. Surviving nesting pairs retreated to the shores of Lake Erie. Since pollution controls have been put into place, they have begun spreading back across the state, following the major waterways, such as Knox County’s Mohican and Kokosing rivers.
The easiest way to find eagles is to start by identifying a large nest, woven out of branches. Those are not necessarily easy to find, however.
“Not having so many big, old trees, they are relying more on pine trees,” Menard said during a Friday morning hunt.
He explained that nests in deciduous trees, which shed their leaves every fall, aren’t too hard to find, but nests in pine trees can take time and luck to find. For instance, Menard said he is convinced there is at least one nesting pair of bald eagles in the Mohican Gorge, but the landscape there is covered with concealing pine trees.
The nests can be imposing. One of the most massive ones in Ohio can be found near the Lake Fork of the Mohican River, near Loudonville. The nest sits far back from the road, making it less likely that human interference will spook the birds. Menard noted he has permission from most land owners in this area where eagles are nesting, to come onto their private property if necessary, but he avoids doing that whenever possible. Instead, he watches the massive birds with binoculars.
Although he thinks the population of eagles in Ohio is more than have ever been here, he was afraid Friday that this year’s census would come out lower than last year’s.
“The weather’s been too good,” he said.
When the weather’s bad, he explained, adults and juveniles associated are more likely to congregate near the nest, making them easier to find and count. Perhaps, he said, the weekend’s storm, followed by forecasts of snow for this week will help eagle-counters statewide.
Phil and Shirley Frost became part of that select group of enthusiasts, thanks to Menard.
“My wife, Shirley, worked at the YMCA, and Jon was the mail carrier that came to the Y every day,” Phil Frost said.
Shirley and Menard started talking about eagles, then got Phil involved, too. Shirley and Phil were hooked the first time they spotted an adult bald eagle, with its distinctive white head. It is that head, incidentally, which gives the bird its name, which was originally “piebald eagle,” meaning an eagle with mottled dark and white markings. The juveniles grow large quickly, displaying a 7-foot wingspan before their second year, but not acquiring the noble white head until after their fourth year.
The hot spot for eagles in Knox County is Greer, where Menard and the Frosts have spotted around a dozen birds, most of them juveniles. Other nests are near Brinkhaven, Gambier, Knox Lake and a few other spots along rivers. One large body of water that has not yet appealed to eagles is Apple Valley Lake, probably because of the relatively dense population and high activity level on the lake.
Menard said the eagles coped well with the September windstorm. Not a single nest was lost in Knox County.
“They are masters of the wind,” Menard said. “They know where to put nests, and they know how to build them.”
He often searches for eagles after noticing blue heron rookeries, because eagles typically like similar topography and access to fish, although eagles will also scavenge food when it is available, especially the younger ones. Menard said deer carcasses are particularly strong eagle magnets.
Menard had his most unexpected bald eagle sighting just a week ago. Pulling out of the McDonald’s restaurant on Ohio 3, just outside of Loudonville one morning, he looked across the field and saw a bald eagle taking flight out of a tree along the banks of the Mohican. He said the easiest spot for beginning spotters is at the dam to Pleasant Hill Reservoir.
“Place yourself there and wait,” Menard said. “The eagles will come.”
Recommended equipment for eagle watching includes a good pair of binoculars, warm clothes for winter searches and a camera with a powerful zoom. Beyond that, it just takes patience, a respectful distance from the shy animals and a sharp eye.
“We are now retired and enjoy going early in the morning to spot eagles, and have seen as many as 15 in one day,” Phil Frost said. “What a thrill.”