Gone are the days that visitors to Green Valley Park would see Ernie or Bernie perched atop the willow tree on the big lake’s south side. Gone are the days that you could look up from the sidewalk under the tree and see one or both of these bald eagles staring down at you.
Each year, for nearly two decades, from early fall through mid-spring, one or both of these two beautiful, migrating raptors became as much park regulars as the daily human fishermen, walkers and picnickers.
Ernie was a regular seasonal resident of Green Valley Park when I moved to Payson in 2002. My thought when I first saw him was “Wow! A bald eagle!” — I had never seen one in the wild before. My second thought was “Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe I’m so close to one!”
As usual, when Ernie left Payson for his summer home in May of 2018, I marked down the date in the early fall that I guessed he would return. But very sadly for others and me he never did return that year and hasn’t been seen here since. Hopefully he found himself a good woman up north — and lots of little Ernies are soaring high in the skies of Montana.
Bernie, Ernie’s son, first came onto the Green Valley Park scene in the fall of 2013. Not even a year-old yet, he sported the customary molted brown and white colors of an immature eagle his age. Bernie very quickly became accustomed to us humans and easily learned the fine art of rainbow trout fishing from his adept father. For the next six years, it was a delight to watch Bernie mature into a handsome adult with dark brown body feathers and pure white tail and head.
Unfortunately, it’s been since January 2020 that we last saw Bernie in Payson. For many of us, it’s just very sad that this very sociable and confident avian is no longer coming back for the winter. We can only hope that he too has found a life-mate and the two are captivating others elsewhere the same way he and his father did for us.
But as is said, when one door closes, another opens — and so it is with this eagle tale.
In February of this year, a different, fully mature bald eagle was seen perched on the ridge line south of the lake, on the same dead tree that Ernie and Bernie used to perch.
Then, to our surprise and delight, a week later another adult eagle was also hanging out near the lake. It soon became apparent that one was a male and the other female — and that’s when things became very interesting. The birds were soon seen perched smoochingly close to each other in the same dead tree, soaring together over the lake and then joined in a midair aerial freefall — an eagle mating ritual.
Though still perching only on the ridge line above the condos, neither yet has developed the chutzpah to land atop the willow tree and engage with passersby as both Ernie and Bernie used to do. Both seem so very comfortable fishing in any of the three lakes — and even close to the shoreline.
My guess is that this raptor couple will stick around for a few more weeks before taking off for the north. My hope is that they are building or have completed a nest in the area.
Since these two new eagles have now been visiting for a couple of months, we regular photographers at the lake felt it was about time to give these newbies names. So, we’ve named the male Sonny and the female Cher.
How can you tell Sonny from Cher? If the couple is perched together, you can easily determine their sex, as female eagles are 25%-30% bigger than males. And if they are flying over the lake, you may still be able to tell which is which. Cher’s feathers are complete and beautiful and some of the feathers on both of Sonny’s wings have broken off feathers — and his tail feathers are ragged-looking. He’s just like most of us guys sometimes — a bit disheveled.
People often ask me if there is a best time to see the eagles at Green Valley Park. But there really isn’t. They may be seen there four or five days in a row, then not seen for the next couple of days. And the time of day for seeing them is just as unpredictable. But if you come in the morning and miss them, come back in the mid-to-late afternoon.
It may be worth the drive back, especially if it’s fishing time.