The Mast-Head: High Over Wainscott

A friend told me later that eagles carry the symbolism of impending change

Waiting for the traffic signal to change to green at Wainscott Northwest Road on Monday, a dark bird soaring far above drew my eye against the gray and empty sky. From its size and broad and fingered wings, it seemed a bald eagle, likely a first-year juvenile, according to illustrations in the Sibley guide I looked at later on.

At the turnout at Georgica Pond, a man in a tan winter coverall and boots peered upward through a pair of binoculars. This made me glad, that someone else had seen it and had taken the time to stop and get a better look. 

A friend told me later that eagles carry the symbolism of impending change. I did not bother to look it up, as it made sense enough as an idea to stand on its own. There was a time not that long ago, really, when an eagle high over Wainscott would have been thought impossible.

The earth is going through what ecologists call a sixth great extinction. Human influence threatens the diversity of living creatures on every continent. Frogs, cheetahs, giraffes, polar bears, scores of birds may disappear by the end of the century, as climate change, invasive competition, and habitat loss alter the natural world. It is hard for me to know if eagles over Wainscott should be a pleasure to see or a dire sign. Ours is a narrowing world in which a few adaptable species can survive alongside us, in a landscape we have remade to our own liking, not theirs.

From what I know, the young eagles overhead in winter come to feed on Canada geese that arrive from the north each year to pick over the corn fields. They spend their nights on the larger ponds for protection from foxes and other terrestrial attacks. Geese do not mind being among people, at a distance, anyway. Hunting takes little toll, and stretched-necked sentries keep the feeding birds safe from the occasional dog.

More particular birds, like the summer beach’s piping plovers, are listed as endangered due to the loss of their favored breeding sites on pristine dunes. Canada geese, which can nest almost anywhere and feast greedily on suburban lawns, are probably going to be around for a long while, as may the eagles that, in turn, feast on them.

My heart soared as the Wainscott light changed and I began to drive east, the eagle still in view. Whether what I felt should have been joy or despair, I did not yet know.

This column has been updated to correct the name of Wainscott Northwest Road.