DECORAH – The squawk box said “205” and Bob Anderson, the godfather of the Decorah eagles, said, “Don’t move. She’s right here.”
The squawk box is the hand-held radio receiver that every 60 seconds bleats out a number indicative of proximity to the transmitter to which it is attuned.
She is D1, the most famous of the world-famous Decorah eagles, the wearer of the solar-powered satellite transmitter Anderson affixed to her 27 months ago.
She had just arrived in Decorah after a 3-month sojourn in Polar Bear Provincial Park near the Arctic Circle, and Anderson, the director of the Raptor Resource Project, which put the Decorah eagles on millions of computer screens, was eager to see how she’d changed since he’d last seen her.
At 2 ½ years of age, she should be showing some white feathers, he said, as we hiked along the Upper Iowa River, listening to the computer-generated voice speak a number at one-minute intervals.
We were still talking when the squawk box said 145. A minute later it said 170 and we shut our mouths, knowing we were getting close.
In another minute it said 205, the highest number Anderson had ever heard it speak, and he whispered, “We’re within 100 feet of her.”
Anderson spotted her perched in a leafy tree, her back to us, and we both started snapping photos. When she’d tired of being ogled, she took wing, revealing splotches of white feathers on her head and tail.
As we high-fived, she flew across the river and perched in a bare tree near Decorah’s Trout Run Park, where we later took more photos.
That was Anderson’s third reunion with D1, who in 2011, the first year of her life, returned to Decorah around Christmas after spending months in the boundary waters wilderness straddling the Minnesota-Canada border. Last year and this year she spent three months in Polar Bear Provincial Park at the 55th parallel where James Bay meets Hudson Bay, returning both times in mid-October.
“I’m still amazed that an Iowa-fledged eagle would spend her summers so far north high above the tree line in the land of the polar bear then return directly back to Decorah,” Anderson said..
This year she left Hudson Bay on Sept. 20 and arrived in Decorah, 1,100 miles south, on Monday, which Anderson knows because he gets a satellite fix on her position every morning on his computer.
“I’m right there every morning waiting for the data to come in. I can’t wait to find out how far she’s come in the past 24 hours. It’s like opening a surprise gift every morning,” he said.
Because her transmitter operates on a 30-hours-on, 30-hours-off basis, he had to wait until Thursday to track her down with the hand-held receiver.
When we set out to find her at 7:30 a.m., Anderson thought we might, with luck, be done and eating breakfast by 8, but it wasn’t quite that easy.
Though we drove to within a few hundred feet of her and walked to within 120 feet, we couldn’t find her. Anderson’s instruments indicated she was across the Upper Iowa River from us in trees too leafy to reveal her profile.
We tracked down the owner of the likely property in a Decorah assisted living facility and secured permission to hunt for her on the opposite side of the river, where we eventually found her, after a half-mile hike, at 10:15 a.m.
Now Anderson is hoping that the transmitter will continue working until she reaches sexual maturity, finds a mate and builds her own nest. That could be next year if she is precocious, he said.
Then we’ll find out if the continental traveler who always comes home to Decorah in the fall will nest here.
D1’s parents, who have been off line this year because they moved to a new nest about 400 feet from the old one at the Decorah Fish hatchery, will be back on line next year, Anderson said.
Though it is not yet clear which nest they will choose, both nests are now wired and fitted with cameras and microphones.
“That’s a huge weight off my shoulders. So many people are counting on the Decorah eagle cam being back in business,” he said.