Joan Brigham, Florida's indefatigable Eagle Woman, writes poetry about her favorite bird. She daydreams about eagles as she bakes her famous from-scratch brownies in her little kitchen. When eagles migrate from Florida in the spring she makes note of their departure on a clipboard. When they return in the fall she is waiting to greet them. Mrs. Brigham, 85, is the state's oldest volunteer in Florida Audubon's EagleWatch network. Most mornings she starts looking for eagles shortly after dawn. If there's an eagle lurking in the vicinity, she is lurking nearby. Her territory is west-central Florida's most urban county, Pinellas, where buildings outnumber eagle-friendly pine trees. In most of America, eagles are bashful wilderness critters that nervously avoid humans and their infernal internal combustion engines. In the urban Tampa Bay area, eagles often have no choice but to nest in backyard trees and in parking lots atop cell phone towers.
"I would rather find eagles in pine trees in the wilderness,'' Mrs. Brigham says crisply. "But I am happy to find eagles anywhere around here.''
Years ago, she seldom saw them anywhere in the United States. Eagles were headed for extinction because of a pesticide in the food chain, rampant development and illegal hunting. The chemical DDT, which weakened bird eggs, was banned in 1972. The Endangered Species Act passed the following year. By the next decade Mrs. Brigham was seeing Haliaeetus leucocephalus once again and feeling the call of the muse.
Eagle, Soaring High!
Master of the boundless sky,
Vision of freedom and majesty
Spirit of our lives and destiny
Keen-eyed symbol of a nation's dream,
Fly on forever, unfettered, supreme.
"I wrote that poem,'' says the Eagle Woman, "because it reflects my feelings exactly.''
• • •
Mid morning, Palm Harbor: She stands at the corner of a gated community that happens to be named after an eagle. "Usually developments in Florida are memorials to things that are no more,'' she says dryly. "But this one is an exception.'' Peering through binoculars she sees an eagle pair snuggled in a pine tree nest behind a row of houses.
An hour later, Clearwater: Perched on the bank of Allen's Creek, she scopes out a cell tower for eagle action. Nothing yet. Maybe next time she'll choose an alternate vantage point, perhaps the auto dealership on U.S. 19.
Noon, at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport: A UPS cargo plane rattles McMullen-Booth Road during takeoff above Old Tampa Bay. Mrs. Brigham hardly notices. She's got her binocs trained on a nice eagle pair in a cell tower a mile from the runway.
"Isn't that lovely?'' she asks.
She lives eight months in Florida and the rest of the year in the cool north woods. Migration is only one thing she has in common with eagles. She has piercing vision — and an ear so good she can identify hidden birds by their song.
Like the eagles of the Tampa Bay area, she also has made her peace with civilization. She grew up in rural Michigan, caught snakes, admired frogs, clucked over turtles. At a time when women often quit high school to marry, she graduated from college with a science degree. She married, had children and worked as a city naturalist. In 1982, she and her husband, Dick, retired to congested Clearwater and began the challenging task of looking for eagles.
"You didn't see many back then,'' she says. Over the next decade the eagle population slowly increased. Last year, watchers counted 60 nests in the Tampa Bay area — including a state-record 20 in cell phone towers. "When I first began reporting cell tower nests, nobody believed me,'' she says with satisfaction.
For years Mrs. Brigham directed the EagleWatch program in Pinellas. Last year she handed over leadership to a spring chicken, Barbara Walker, 45, for reasons that included her disdain for an important modern eagle-watching tool, the personal computer. "Pencil and paper were always good enough for me.'' She still monitors eagle nests every day but turns her records over to her computer-savvy friend.
She doesn't text or tweet; she owns no cell phone. She would rather spend time baking brownies for Audubon Society meetings or reading. Last summer she plowed through 45 books, mostly natural history tomes. She plans on writing a book — with ink and crayon, thank you — about "Woody the Woodchuck,'' which she intends to present to a new great-grandchild.
• • •
She and Dick had three children. The boys, men now, enjoy birding, hiking and doing the bidding of their mother. Their daughter, an accomplished outdoorswoman, died of a seizure while snorkeling in the Virgin Islands when she was 29.
After Ann's death, and after Dick passed away, the eagles kept her going. They mate for life. In the fall, they begin gathering sticks to add to old nests that sometimes measure 10 feet across. Their courtship continues in the air.
Few people have seen an aerial courtship display. She has. Above the trees and the houses and the interstate one eagle flies upside-down. The mate flies directly above. Grasping talons, they tumble like a feathered pinwheel toward terra firma. At the last instant they part, fly to the nest, mate.
The female lays one to three eggs. Both parents take turn incubating and hunting for food. When the eggs hatch 35 days later, both parents take turns feeding and guarding. Six weeks later, sometime in the spring, when the clumsy chicks are as large as their parents, they creep to the edge of the nest to test their wings.
Mrs. Brigham misses her husband. She misses her daughter. They loved watching eagles too. The eagle chick falls from the nest and starts flapping. Life goes on.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.