I’d been seeing eagles on or near the Big Pine Marsh since 1993. The marsh is located near the New York/Pennsylvania state line, on a watershed divide less than 10 miles from my home. The eagles, both the golden and the bald, migrate along the ridgetops every spring and fall, but it wasn’t till this past spring that an active nest was found in the area, specifically on an outflow of the marsh that feeds the Genesee River. Bald eagles nested in a large white pine tree visible from the road.
In Iroquois myth, the eagle is the most powerful of birds. It’s the high flying, keen-sighted one, a spirit that can mediate all life between the Earth and the Sun. The “Eagle Who Sees Afar” was believed to perch on the highest branch of the Tree of Peace, an earthly counterpart to the celestial light seen just above. In my view, eagles of the Big Pine Marsh play a similar role. It’s as if the birds are mediators between this watershed and distant locales– far nesting grounds or wintering grounds where they fly to on migration. I’ve almost come to expect these wonderful birds each spring and fall, to give me a lift along their routes, to send imagination off to far locales.
My wife called me at work the other day to say that she’d driven past the marsh and seen… not one bald eagle but… three of them, mature birds with the snow-white head, perhaps the nesting birds of the white pine joined by another migrator. Although I’d seen eagles on the nest in late spring and early summer, I don’t know if any young had been successfully raised. The day before Leighanne saw the trio, she had seen an adult eagle sitting on the same big nest for whatever reason (resting during the cold turbulent weather?). As soon as I had an opportunity, I drove to Big Pine Marsh for some eagle observation but, alas, they were nowhere to be seen. The first skim ice of the season covered much of the shallower waters in this three-section marsh, and I wondered if that, in itself, had impelled the eagles southward.
Each of the three sections is about a mile in length. The top of the highest section at the marsh (a wooded swamp) actually flows north, an opposite direction of the body as a whole. Its drainage is into the headwaters of Bennett Creek and, ultimately, to the Chesapeake. The large main body of the marsh, the impounded middle section (draining to the Genesee and north Atlantic), is the place where I saw my first golden eagle back in 1993 and where the most recent sighting of three bald eagles occurred. The lower section of the marsh, the southward flowing Cryder Creek, is a swampy vale where the huge white pine of local legend once grew.
Back in ’93 I did a six-month study of the bird life at the marsh. Each week from January through June of that year I took a walk or hike through one section of the marsh, and I recorded every species of bird either seen or heard, or both. My weekly bird counts totaled 97 species by summer of that year. There were several species I had hoped to see during the study but, ironically, didn’t find till later that year. They were the American bittern, and the eagles, bald and golden. I learned other things as well, beside the avian life at Big Pine Marsh. I saw the leaking oil wells from a hit-and-run industry that left behind a ravaged waterscape (later the target of a huge EPA clean-up project). I saw the site where the legendary pine once stood at the headwaters of Cryder Creek.
I wrote about this marsh study in A Rivertop Journal, in a chapter called “Wings & Water: Birds of an Upland Marsh.” Concerning the white pine, I wrote, “This particular tree may have been the last great specimen in the area of a species that had dominated Allegheny uplands prior to the nineteenth-century depletion of the forest by the white man’s saw and axe. The white pine is said to have risen 190 feet above the valley floor and to have had a trunk that rose 20 feet before dividing into seven major limbs….”
At least one historical account has it that Seneca Indians hunted through this valley and visited the pine, a “tree of peace.” That may or may not be true but, in the end, a group of white guys had to have the tree. In 1877, two men wrapped their legs in bags to keep the pine pitch off of them, and started sawing. Spectators came to see the native giant drop. The “pine tree saplin’,” as it was called, had a stump that measured nine feet across. The wood converted into 7000 feet of lumber for a farmhouse still in existence. One night after the tree had fallen, fiddle music played from beside the stump; couples took the “floor,” and square-dance callers started chorusing like April frogs.
No great eagle would perch on the highest bough again. The life of that tree is history, a blend of local fact and fiction, but in a sense the massive pine remains. Downstream of the marsh, in the headwaters of a trout stream known as Cryder Creek, there is an impressive pine tree that in 2012 held an active bald eagle nest. Eagles have been moving up and down the marsh all year.