The population of people exploded on one West Saanich Road bend last week as eagle watchers celebrated FledgeFest.
“Each year we meet at the south fence … to watch the Sidney eaglets take their first flights,” said Karen Bills, of Hancock Wildlife Foundation which created the Peninsula’s most-watched online reality show. On July 7, the municipally-owned green space adjacent to Patricia Bay quickly filled as more than 30 people, carrying cameras and binoculars, gathered to watch Ma and Pa Sidney and their trio of eaglets. It was the day the eldest, Flyer, turned 12 weeks old, the usual age for fledging or taking flight for the first time. FledgeFest folks travelled from as far away as Germany and England, and as nearby as Victoria and Campbell River.
In 2008 Pat Beall came for FledgeFest, and after saving all her pennies, she made the return trip all the way from England for the fifth annual FledgeFest this year.
“I’ve been watching them since 2006 when it was the Hornby eagles,” Beall said. That year, with that eagle pair, the eggs weren’t viable. “You could picture the whole world crying over this mother eagle, and she’s trying to put the bits together to sit on them … it was a full sob story.”
Realizing thousands of people were watching, David Hancock found another nest that year — dubbed the ‘Sidney’ nest online — in North Saanich. For many it was the beginning of an eagle addiction.
“I keep saying I’m not at all hooked — at all. I can stop anytime. And I’ve been saying that since 2006,” said Beall, who serves as an administrator on the www.hancockwildlife.org forum. Even after carpal tunnel surgery, she found a way to work the mouse using her left hand. “You have to find out what they’re doing next. It causes some late nights.”
John Simpson admits he’s hooked.
He too discovered the Hornby eagle nest camera in 2006, during an event at the Maritime Heritage Centre in his hometown Campbell River.
“When we went home we went on to the computer … and got to watch this camera,” he said. “It’s just fascinating to watch wildlife that way; the chance to see magnificent bird like the eagle, raising the young, laying the eggs, the whole shebang. Just fascinating. And then the youngsters, when they take off …”
That first year, the camera was far off enough that they could watch ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ fledge online. The next year FledgeFest started, and Simpson was there.
“It’s neat to see the people behind the crazy names that we use, handles you might say, I’m known as ‘eagledude’ on the site,” Simpson said.
To paraphrase one of the many posters in the online forum: they come for the eagles, and stay for the friends.
Introductions, catching up and conversation made up for the lack of eaglet flight at this year’s FledgeFest, where Ma and Pa took to the skies, as did a 443 Sea King helicopter and a pair of turkey vultures, but no juvenile eagles, despite Hancock’s prediction.
“Seven minutes,” joked Hancock, the man who started it all. The crowd got wound up a couple of times as Flyer neared the edge, or ‘branched’ (hopping off the nest to a branch). Though it’s difficult to tell with the nest camera a bit of a blur after the eaglets ‘fouled’ it, they figure at least one of the young ones, Flyer, Burrows or Snuggles is out and about.
“A fledge has occurred at the Sidney nest,” Bills said Sunday. “At least one of the eaglets is now flying in and out of the nest. The other two have been seen branching, which is what we call it when they jump to other branches in the nest tree. Without a clear lens on the camera we cannot yet determine if the other two have truly fledged yet.”