SPEARFISH – Every winter, the Black Hills’ population swells with an influx of wintertime recreational thrill-seekers, but the D.C. Booth National Historic Fish Hatchery plays host to a particularly recognizable, yet elusive snowbird.
“Bald eagles are here in the winter from basically the second or third week of November until generally the tail end of February,” said Eric Roach, a retired surgery technician who has been observing the birds since he moved to Spearfish in 2008.
“I kind of call this a weigh station, they’re here for the winter then they leave here and go to their nesting ground,” he explained. “None of them are banded, none of them have GPS tags, so we have absolutely no idea where they come from or when they leave in the spring, where they go to.”
Roach explained that bald eagles have very distinctive feathers on their chest, which allows them to be distinguished from one another.
“Like our birth marks,” he said.
Roach said he’s seen as many as five dozen bald eagles soaring around Spearfish, roosting in Spearfish Canyon and fishing in the creeks, but there’s only one particular family that he’s seen taking advantage of the abundance of food at the hatchery.
“Why we don’t have 15 or 20 bald eagles at the hatchery feeding on a daily basis, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never seen any other bald eagle fishing at the hatchery.”
In the 12 years he’s spent photographing the bald eagles in Spearfish, capturing tens of thousands of images, Roach said the ones at the hatchery have captured a special place in his life, and he’s gotten to know them quite well.
“I’m not a biologist by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sit and watch, and just watching you learn a lot,” he said.
Roach explained that bald eagles mate for life, or if the male is unable to provide his female with strong offspring, she may kick him to the proverbial curb.
Roach took it upon himself to name the two lovebirds at the hatchery Fred and Lucy.
“They’re like an old married couple,” he said.
Once, while he was spending time with his feathered friends at the hatchery, Roach said he witnessed an all too familiar domestic exchange:
Fred was preening in a tree down by the pond near the maintenance garage, when Roach said he heard Lucy call out from her preferred perch up near the Booth House.
“A few minutes later I’d hear another call; a little bit louder, and Fred would just blow that off,” he recalled. “This went on for about an hour and a half … they got louder, more insistent, longer, and Fred really started paying attention … the last time before he took off and went up there, she was (mad)!”
Roach said by the time he made his way up to Lucy’s perch, there was Fred sitting on a lower branch receiving a beak-full of back talk.
“He listened to that for about five minutes, …(before) he flew off,” he said.
Tragically, this year marks the second season Roach has seen Fred return to the Black Hills without Lucy. In the last weeks of February 2017, right around the time for Fred and Lucy to make their way back to their nesting grounds, Roach said he observed Lucy flying erratically near the Spearfish City Campground with half of her tail feathers missing.
“Five seconds behind her was this big male red-tailed hawk. I’m guessing that they got into it,” he said.
Eileen Dowd-Stukel, wildlife diversity coordinator with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks said it would be unlikely for a red-tail hawk and a bald eagle to compete for food or territory, however it’s not uncommon for the smaller red-tails to act defensively when larger birds are around. She went on to explain that if a confrontation did take place, damage to a bald eagle’s tail feathers shouldn’t prevent it from migrating.
Roach said he didn’t notice any other injuries to Lucy that day, however that was the last time he saw her.
“Over the next two and a half weeks I saw Fred fishing both at the hatchery and in the creek. He would get a fish and he would fly across the campground up towards the mouth of the Canyon,” Roach said. “I’m assuming that he got a fish for him, he ate, then got a fish for her and took it to her at the roost.”
As time passed, Roach lost track of Fred. He assumed Lucy hadn’t even made it out of the Hills.
The following November, Roach was delighted to find Fred returning to the hatchery with a familiar family member: their daughter.
“I first saw her three years ago, with Fred and Lucy,” Roach said.
Roach spent the 2017-2018 winter seeing little of Fred and his daughter, which he attributed to Fred passing on his knowledge of the area to his progeny.
“Last year was school time,” he said.
This year, Roach said he’s enjoying spending time with his old friend, Fred.
“I’ve had people say, ‘they don’t remember people from day-to-day, let alone year-to-year,’ I beg to differ,” he explained. “I’ve been watching these guys for 12 years.”
Roach said he’s even formed a sort of bond with Fred that would be hard for the casual observer to understand.
“Fred lets me know when I’m close enough, and he lets me know when he’s had enough,” he said.
Roach said one indicator that Fred is comfortable and at ease with him is when he hangs one of his talons over the edge of the branch he’s on. Roach explained that means he’s relaxed and doesn’t feel the need to be ready to take off at a moments notice. Fred will also react to Roach’s body language, for example, if someone approaches him too abruptly.
“Fred will notice that they’ve startled me, and he reflects that,” he said.
Although it is sad that Fred is now without his Lucy, Roach said he’s excited to see how their daughter, who he’s yet to name, will carry on the traditions passed on to her by her parents.
“There’s a lot of Fred in her,” he said.