While taking a day trip in east Tennessee, we paused for lunch in Dandridge. According to the T-shirts and such for sale in the 100-year-old Tinsley-Bible pharmacy downtown, Dandridge is the second-oldest town in the state, and quite proud of it. Sitting at the soda fountain, we asked the soda jerk, “OK, if Dandridge is second-oldest, what is first?” Without looking up from scooping ice cream, he wearily replied, “Jonesborough.”
“You get that a lot, I guess,” I said.
“Yep, all the time,” as he turned his attention to the fudge.
After lunch, while deciding which way to go next, on a whim we followed a road to the top of a ridge north of town which offered a view of the French Broad River valley, at the point it becomes Lake Douglas. Like most whims, this one was rewarded, first with the fantastic view and then with something else altogether.
While stopped, my attention was drawn skyward to a large bird and a smaller one. At first I thought they were vultures, but something glinted … a white head and tail?
Yes, in the sky above me was a bald eagle, circling and playing with another bird which I thought at first was a falcon. Still too high for good photos, I was hoping they might come down some, then I heard another eagle scream from a tree a few yards away.
That was when I met Sargent. Her tagged left wing said B9, which, as I later found out, means she was hatched from egg B in 2009 just a few miles away from where she sat 30 feet up a tree on a bluff over the French Broad. Sargent was hatched by the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Pictures of her as an egg and a chick are here.
Since being released, she has been seen and photographed a number of places; Erie, Pa.; Dunkirk, N.Y.; Jasper, Ohio; and Birmingham, Ala.
Her life has not been easy. She broke her wing in Ohio and was rehabbed in Cincinnati, and released in May 2010. Last year she was found grounded in Alabama with a parasite and feather problem. She was sent back home to AEF, where she was released again on Sept. 24, 2012, near Douglas Lake. Since then she was spotted on Dec. 6, 2012, near Dandridge in the company of a young bald eagle.
This day, Sargent was sitting in a big oak tree, screeching at the other birds above her. I walked slowly toward the tree, afraid at any moment she would take flight. As you can see from the photos, my presence, probably the presence of any human, was beneath her concern. I was surprised by a sudden squawk from above and the other eagle swooped down, perching briefly in the top of the tree. Before I could change lenses to catch two bald eagles in the same tree, the other eagle swooped back into the air, right over my head, I could feel the downdraft from the wing beats.
That eagle rejoined the other bird and they continued their tumbling in the air, disappearing to the north. I turned, and Sergeant was still sitting in the tree. I worked around to the other side to get the sun from behind the bird. The whole time she watched me with a detachment bordering on boredom. Her head swiveled around constantly, scanning up and down, returning gaze to me and resuming the scan.
I watched through the long lens for what seemed a long time, but the time stamps on the photos say it was only about three minutes. Sargent then bunched up her feathers, turned into the wind and flapped away directly over me. If the other eagle was close, this take-off was near-miss, and the thrill of a lifetime. She circled a few times, then caught a thermal high over the lake and sailed away to the south.
This is very exciting news, as bald eagles of her age tend to nest near the location of their first flight. If indeed the other eagle is a male, it is very likely that Sargent will be nesting and raising young eagles in the French Broad valley soon.
As I first saw her, on the branch in the oak tree. The B9 tag positively identifies her.
As I worked around to get her out of the sun, she gazed at me with disdain.
As Sargent flew off, her tag clearly visible.