Friday, March 7, 2014

The Eagles of Brownhelm

The mother eagle and her eaglets in the Great Nest of Brownhelm
Here's my article about the eagles of Brownhelm that appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of The Black Swamp Trader & Firelands Gazette. It appears here courtesy of that publication.

The well-known Great Nest that is mentioned in the article fell to the ground 89 years ago this month.


Brownhelm’s Famous Eagles Soared in Popularity in the 1920’s
By Dan Brady
Have you ever heard of the Great Nest of Brownhelm? That’s the name commonly used to refer to a famous American bald eagle nest that was located on Lake Road halfway between Vermilion and Lorain. It was the largest known bird tree nest before it fell in a storm in March 1925. But while the nest has attracted much attention over the years, the story of the beloved eagles that called it home has often been overlooked. Fortunately, newspaper accounts from that era exist, and they provide a fascinating story of the challenges that the eagles faced, as well as a glimpse of just how popular the birds were in the community. Let’s take a look back at those days in the 1920’s, when these symbols of American courage and freedom were flying high in Northeast Ohio’s affections.
Where was the historic nest located? It was 81 feet above the ground in a shellbark hickory, in a wooded area on the south side of Lake Road (U.S. Route 6) in Brownhelm Township. The tree was in the rear of the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Buehring, at what was known at that time as Stop 121 on the old Lake Shore Electric interurban system, just west of Baumhart Road.
It may be hard to believe, but eagles had long called that neighborhood home. By the 1920’s, it was generally accepted that they had lived in those same woods for eighty or ninety years. And the Great Nest of Brownhelm, the fourth in a series of nests during those years, had been begun not later than 1890.
Eagles build their nest as a cumulative structure, with a new nest or layer built upon the old one after each successive nesting season. Gradually, the nest expands in height and width and after many years, can become quite large. Incredibly, the Great Nest had measured 12 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide and was estimated to weigh two tons.
With the eagles and their nest visible from Lake Road, they attracted a lot of attention. But the attention was not only from sightseers and motorists, but also from biologists, nature students and a man who would practically dedicate his life to studying the eagles: Professor Francis H. Herrick of the Western Reserve University biology department.
Prof. Herrick would spend much of the 1920’s observing and documenting the lives of the birds. His research was the first comprehensive study of the American bald eagle, and was published in books, as well as the May 1929 issue of The National Geographic Magazine.  He would also become almost a paternal figure and official spokesman for the birds, as we shall see.
An eaglet looks out from
the Great Nest of Brownhelm
In the winter of 1922, Prof. Herrick initiated his studies by erecting a ten-foot square observation platform in a large elm near the Great Nest. A second platform was added in the spring of 1923. Each platform was reached by a ladder and topped with a khaki-colored tent, from which Prof. Herrick could observe the eagles but not be seen. The eagles didn’t seem to mind the tent, and thus Prof. Herrick was able to study and photograph them and their family from his observatory for hours at a time.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck on November 28, 1924. OAK POINT EAGLE IS SHOT AND KILLED – MAN FINED FOR SLAYING ONE OF COMMUNITY’S PETS reported the Lorain Times-Herald on its front page a day later. The article noted, “Residents of this place are mourning the death of one of the two eagles that has helped to make this locality famous for a number of years.”
John Bovinski, a farmer that was new to the area, had believed that the eagles were after his chickens. He shot down the male in the middle of the woods and clubbed him to death. Bovinski was arrested and fined $25. He was spared heavier punishment because he had a large family.
There was some confusion as to which eagle had been slain. Initial newspaper accounts mistakenly believed that the female had been killed.
On December 1, 1924, the Lorain Journal followed up the killing of the bird with more bad news on its front page. FAMOUS EAGLES’ NEST IS VACANT read the headline. The article stated, “For the second time in more than thirty years, Ohio’s famous American eagles’ nest near Vermilion was vacant yesterday, while somewhere the great pinions of the male bird were carrying him across a wintry sky toward his far-off habitat.”
The same article noted, “Once before many years ago, a mate of the old male was killed. He disappeared for a time, but returned at length with the mate who was slain Friday. Biologists and students hope he is gone on the same mission this time, for he and his two wives for years have been enriching the love of the American eagle among scientists of Ohio.”
Prof. Herrick was also interviewed for the article. “It is likely the male will return with a new mate, as he did years ago,” he stated. “If he does not it will be almost a tragedy.”
Meanwhile, the slain eagle was to be mounted and displayed in the Sandusky High School museum. A fight over the body ensued, in which then Governor Donahey was forced to intervene. Eventually the eagle was given to Western Reserve University, and it was later put on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
As Prof. Herrick predicted, the female eagle did return in February 1925 with a new partner, after an absence of eleven weeks. It seemed that everything would soon be back to normal in the Great Nest. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
On March 10, 1925, high winds and heavy rainfall caused the tree containing the Great Nest to crash to the ground. WIND DESTROYS EAGLES NEST NEAR VERMILION was the headline in the Lorain Times-Herald on March 11. The article noted, “The old eagles nest that stood in a high hickory tree in Brownhelm near Lorain is gone. Last night’s high wind and heavy rainfall sent the tree crashing to the ground and closed the history of the famous American Eagles which have made Lorain county their home for over 50 years.”
HOPES TO PRESERVE EAGLES’ NEST was the title of the article in the Lorain Journal on March 12. It stated, “Dr. Francis H. Herrick, professor of biology at Western Reserve University, will visit Saturday the crushed mass of limbs, grass, feathers and bones, the remains of the one-ton nest of American eagles, east of Vermilion, which was destroyed in Tuesday night’s gale. The nest was the most famous aerie in the middle west and had been the home of 50 generations of young eaglets. When the nest fell to the ground newly laid eggs were destroyed, an examination of the aerie today disclosed. The eagles circled above screaming at the farmers and sightseers.”
Prof. Herrick planned to try and preserve the nest for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Of the eagles, he noted, “They still have time to build a new aerie and raise another brood.”
Professor Herrick's observation tower
next to the nest that later fell in May 1926
Once again, Prof. Herrick was right. Amazingly, ten days after the Great Nest went down, the eagles began building a new nest – the fifth in that area – in an oak tree in another part of the same grove. This time, Prof. Herrick built an 80-foot steel observation tower nearby that brought him within 40 feet of the new nest, and he enjoyed a productive year of new observations and studies.
Unfortunately, disaster would strike again. On the evening of May 18, 1926, another storm hit and the new nest crashed to the ground.
EAGLES MAY ABANDON NEST AS 3 ARE KILLED IN STORM was the headline in the Lorain Times-Herald two days later. The paper posed this question: “Will the famous American eagles abandon their aerie, near Vermilion, as a result of their most recent calamity which resulted in the death of three 10-day old eaglets in Tuesday night’s storm?” The article noted that, “Since the tragedy which destroyed their nest and killed their young, the parent pair have circled the skies above their fallen nest." An article in the Lorain Journal noted, “For a second time within a year the famous eagles are homeless and childless.”
According to Prof. Herrick in the National Geographic article, a new nest – the sixth in that neighborhood – eventually appeared in a living ash, just over the eastern town line in Black River Township. Initially, he had assumed that it was the same pair of eagles, but he later doubted that they were the same ones. Nevertheless, Prof. Herrick set up a new tower in January 1928.
This pair of eagles, whether they were the original ones or not, were not immune to tragedy either. In May 1928, other eagles entered the area and attacked the pair in furious battles. Sadly, the male eagle was killed, and the female was forced to raise her eaglets alone.
By the end of March 1929, Prof. Herrick noted that the female had a new mate, and it was at that point that his story in The National Geographic Magazine ended. His tower was taken down in June 1930.
A later newspaper account in the Lorain Journal from June 21, 1955, stated that a succession of eagles continued to build their treetop nests in the wooded area along Lake Road until the late 1930’s. Today, more than seventy years later, American bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list. Happily, they are making a comeback in Lorain County with two known nests.
To see a full-size replica of the Great Nest of Brownhelm, visit the Carlisle Visitor Center of the Lorain County Metro Parks at 12882 Diagonal Road in LaGrange, Ohio. Phone (440) 458-5121 for information.

The male eagle in the nest that later fell in May 1926

All photographs with this article are by Francis H. Herrick and appear courtesy of National Geographic.


Anonymous said...

I grew up in Brownhelm and was aware of the famous nest, but I still can't picture where it was located. I'm sure the area is quite different now. Dave

Dan Brady said...

At the time I wrote the article, I remember that it was supposed to have been just west of Baumhart, well off the road but visible from Route 6. I think I came up with that location using interurban "stops" as a guide as one was supplied at one point that roughly corresponded with the Great Nest. I've looked at that picture of the Great Nest myself with the farm in the background and tried to figure it out.

Drew Penfield said...

This map from my website can help illustrate where the nest was. Just click on "stop 121" in the list on the left and zoom in.

Dan Brady said...

Thanks, Drew! That map's been pretty handy to me lately!

Look like the Great Nest was somewhere in the vicinity of where Nicholson Road intersects with Route 6, on farmland south of the highway.

Anonymous said...

Dan.. saw 2 today in Vermilion [Coen Rd]...Big nest on Sunnyside Rd. Between the RxR tracks and Rt.2 East side of Sunnyside.


Dan Brady said...

Thank you very much for the information and the link to the article. It's incredible how many nests there are in Ohio! I'm still thinking like it's the 1980s, when they were truly rare.

Once Spring is really here, I'll have to dedicate a day for eagle hunting (with my camera)!

Anonymous said...

Last Eagle comment, [I promise] Went from Vermilion to Avon today via Rt2. 1 Eagle at Rt2 & Middle Ridge rd exit --- 1 Eagle at Rt2 & Rt 254 exit -over Mike Bass Ford. I stop at Mercy hospital on the way home. 1 Eagle over Mercy Hospital and finally.. Our Coen Rd Eagle was in a tree between the 2 RXR tracks. OK I'm done,

Dan Brady said...

Please don't stop posting, I am enjoying hearing where the eagles are! You must have a pretty good eagle radar, I'm all over the county every weekend and although I'm always looking, the best I can come up with hawks, so just call me Hawkman.

One interesting note, though--a few years ago I saw an eagle on a Sunday morning in a neighbors tree across Lake Rd from us (right on the lake). In that same tree over the weekend I saw what I think is an old eagle nest--it's pretty big, if it was a squirrel's, he'd have to be as big as a gorilla!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links and info. That area does seem to fit. I admit I kinda forgot about that area. Thanks agsin. Dave Beko