LIMA — On cold crisp mornings, Dave Shaner rises with the sun and heads out for a full day of waiting to capture the right moment.
“I look for the unusual shot, when they’re banking or when they’re taking a fish,” Shaner said. “When they’re turning, you can get kind of a 3D-look from them.”
Shaner is a bald eagle photographer, and 40 years ago, his job would have been a lot more difficult.
Back in 1979, Ohio could only claim four bald eagle nests total. Today, that number is over 700.
The return of bald eagles is decades-long story that began with Rachel Carson’s 1962 landmark book “Silent Spring,” which detailed the disastrous effects of pesticides, especially DDT, on bird populations. A decade later in 1973, the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency banned use of the chemical, which allowed the slowly disappearing bald eagle population to grab a foothold before going completely extinct.
Fast forward through decades of work and a few more congressional acts to today, and bald eagles are categorized by Ohio Department of Natural Resources as “common” birds.
Those interested in seeing one just need to head to one of the five nests in Allen County to see their recognizable white tufts.
“I love seeing them,” Allen County Wildlife Officer Craig Barr said. “But I’m a little embarrassed to say I don’t pay as much attention as I used to.”
Out of the five nests said to be in Allen County, Barr knows each one of them personally. Two are on the Auglaize River on the west side of the county. Another is on the Ottawa River in Shawnee Township, and the fourth is also on the Ottawa on the east side of the county. The final one is close to Procter & Gamble’s facility near the reservoir.
“I know any day that I want to show someone an eagle, I bring them out to the reservoirs,” Barr said. “About five, six years ago, some guys told me they saw 18 or 20 eagles out on the ice at Bresler Reservoir.”
Shaner, too, can usually find big groups of eagles. While they can show up at Grand Lake, he sees most of his eagles on trips out of the state to the Mississippi River. There, eagles will migrate to locks and dams — man-made structures that keep the waters from freezing over — and he’ll spot dozens of them in neaby trees waiting to grab a stunned fish that’s traveling through the churning waters.
“I just got hooked. I used to go over to Indianapolis and see the Indy cars and take racing pictures and stuff like that. I never was into birding that much, but as I got a little older, the eagles, they came back and I saw them more often,” Shaner said. “I would go out basically on my own, and I knew the hotspots on the lake. You can look at the pictures on Facebook, I have 1,000 of them over there.
“The eagle photographers, we’re out there from sunrise and sunset. You layer up, you do what you got to do to get that picture.”
Jill Bowers, 80, too, is a bird eagle aficionado, and she knows about their rise in population well thanks to her role in tracking their return to the region.
Back in 1995, she and her husband began nest monitoring for the ODNR and sent out the reports that tracked them around the Celina area. The first pair she got to know she named Mercy and The Count for Mercer County.
“When you stop and think, there was one bald eagle nest in Mercer County in 1995. When you think now that there’s 16 of them, it makes me a proud grandma,” Bowers said.
According to ODNR, at least 707 confirmed eagle nests are located in the state. Allen County has five, Auglaize has four, Putnam has eight, Van Wert has two, Hardin has nine and Mercer has 16.
“To know that there’s 700-plus nests in the state of Ohio, that is — to me — that is amazing,” Bowers said.
Because of good eagle habitats centered around Grand Lake, people will even make the trip specifically to Mercer County to get a glance of the county’s eagles.
“Most people are tickled to see them,” Donna Grube, executive director for the Greater Grand Lake Region Visitor Center, said. “They are rather magnificent when you see them flying.”
Last year especially, Grube said visitors and families often inquired about where they could find the eagles as people looked for things to do outside and stay socially distanced during the pandemic.
In years past, she would warn them about getting too close out of worries that they might spook the eagles. Now, the birds don’t seem to mind as much, she said.
“They’re more concerned about finding a big enough tree to hold their nests,” she said.
Bowers said she sees such groups sometimes trying to spot the eagles when she has her own equipment set up to see the birds. She’ll often invite them over for a look.
“To have an older gentleman or a whole family come up, to be able to show them an eagle, that’s amazing. Because for their generation, they never saw a bald eagle,” she said. “People love to see them soar. There’s something so majestic, so regal, to see them perched on a limb somewhere again … it’s just wonderful to watch them.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.