Greenpoint: Bald and beautiful — eagles still a treat

A bald eagle lands in a tree overlooking the Des Moines River in Des Moines, Iowa, in February 2020. (The Associated Press)
PHOTOGRAPHER:

A bald eagle lands in a tree overlooking the Des Moines River in Des Moines, Iowa, in February 2020. (The Associated Press)

I’ve been watching the bald eagles around here for more than 30 years, stopping to look as they circle over our house, admiring the way they swoop into the lake to grab a fish, watching the young ones grow up and fly away.

They are majestic birds, beautiful in flight or perched on a dead tree over a lake. We recognize their sort of wimpy call, and the sound the chickens make to warn each other that one is flying overhead. Once I chased an immature eagle who had grabbed a young hen and tried to fly off with her. It just flew into a nearby tree and sat looking at me. And the hen was fine.

I think they prefer fish to hens, but they are opportunistic and can’t be trusted. In the winter they feast on roadkill deer.

When my sisters recounted the few times they had seen bald eagles during a recent visit, I felt a little smug telling them how often we see them. There are eagles all over this area and we are lucky enough to have a nesting pair right in our neighborhood. Even in hard winters some water stays open for their fishing, so they stay here year-round.

On our morning walks down to the beach, the dog and I stop so she can get a drink of water, and I look at the nest, a mass of sticks high in a white pine on the lakeshore. When we walk in the woods we can spot the nest from behind. Sometimes in the early morning there’s an eagle sitting on a branch just below that nest, looking out on the lake. “Good morning, your majesty,” I say, because I’m pretty sure that is the proper way to address an eagle.

I’m not sure when I first noticed that there are two nests, one a little lower and farther up the shore from the first. I imagined that with a growing family, the birds were spreading out. Or that some of the eagle children decided to settle close to their parents.

I checked my bird books. Turns out that doesn’t happen. When young eagles are ready to leave home, they spend a few years as lone travelers before they mate and nest. They generally return to their home area, within a couple hundred miles of their birth nest. But not right next door. By the time they are of mating age, their parents would consider them intruders.

Eagles typically mate for life, build a nest together and use the same one, year after year, to lay eggs and raise their young. Migrating eagles return to the same nest in the spring. They add sticks and do a bit of remodeling each year, so their nests can be huge and weigh hundreds of pounds.

And they often build a secondary nest nearby, sometimes if the original nest was damaged in a storm or if their eggs failed to hatch there. They will alternate nests, using one for a few years and then moving to the other, and back again.

I guess we’ve romanticized our eagles over the year. They can’t actually be the same pair we first met here — they live a long time, but usually more like 20 or 25 years. A nest could be active for longer if one of a pair dies and the other brings a new mate back home.

The oldest known bald eagle in the state was 38, identified by the DEC in 2015 after it was killed by a car in Monroe County. It had been banded at a few months old in 1977, after being brought from Minnesota in an effort to reintroduce bald eagles to New York. The repopulation program began in 1976, a few years after new federal laws protecting bald eagles and banning the pesticide DDT, which weakens eggshells so that chicks don’t develop.

New nesting pairs were brought in for 13 years and established themselves around New York.

I’m happy to report the program was a success. This morning, as the dog and I got to the lake and I looked over toward the second nest, an eagle took off across the lake. Good morning, your majesty.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 20. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life & Arts

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