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Watching the Eagles by Bill Watanabe

March 10, 2015

Watching the Lifestyles of the Beautiful Bald Eagles: Sex, Fly(s), and Videotape for Bald Eagles

I love watching the bald eagle nests on Catalina Island via the “eaglecam”.   Bald eagles disappeared from our So Cal skies decades ago due to DDT poisoning but now they are coming back, nesting on local mountains and treetops and they are beautiful to behold.

They are endearing to watch because the eaglecam allows you to observe them in their natural habitats as they go through the cycle of nesting, mating, laying and incubating eggs, hatching and nurturing the chicks, and finally fledging.   It is exciting to finally see the youngsters take off on their first flight away from the nest (which is usually very high up and a long way down to the ground).

First, around January and February, the eagles build (or return to) very large nests on top of rocky crags or trees.   These nests are extremely well-built so that even high winds do not dislodge them.   The forest rangers who check in on the eagles from time to time can even sit on the nests with their full-body weight without damaging the nests!  In the middle of the nest, the eagle parents (eagles often pair off and mate for life) bring in soft grassy “fluff” and shape it into a bowl-like form which protect the egg(s) and keeps them warm and cozy during incubation.   These early months of are spent in “homemaking” and “love-making”.   There is a bit of voyeurism in watching the eagles having public sex – but it often happens very fast.  Since the eagles are actually “married” – I guess it is not scandalous or adulterous – although trading partners does occasionally happen in eagledom!

When the eggs come (usually one or two and occasionally three eggs) each parent takes turns incubating the eggs and keeping them warm, protecting it from wind, rain, snow, and threats from other animals and birds.   Every few hours, the other eagle parent will come and relieve the sitting eagle who can then go off and feed itself or help guard the nest.   Each time there is a switch, the eagle will gently roll the egg over to make sure the yolk does not stick to the side of the egg shell -now how does an eagle know they are supposed to do that?   The dedication of these eagles in caring for their off-spring is truly inspiring!

If everything goes well, by springtime, the egg will hatch into a cute and lively and hungry chick – so fun to watch after a few weeks of nest-sitting!  The parents become very busy providing food for the chick, and if there are more than one chick, the nest becomes a soap-opera drama of sibling rivalry, competing for food, and survival of the fittest dynamics.   However, if the parents are experienced, usually all the eaglets get fed eventually (though there is a pecking order) and they quickly grow to full size.   The parent eagles are expert hunters for game, and they come back with live fish, rodents, and other birds.   It is fascinating to watch the eagles rip off small bite-size morsels and feed the chicks – which they do first and later they will eat their own portions.   This feeding is critical because the fresh meat is not only their food but their only source of liquid intake.  Another amazing thing is even the small chicks know they are to point and poop away from the nest in order to keep it clean!

In a few weeks, the chicks begin to flap their wings and learn to hover and test the winds and finally comes the magical moment when they lift off and take their first flight away from the nest.    The fledglings will continue to return to the nest for a few weeks to be fed by the parent eagles, but eventually, they will learn to hunt for their own prey and in a few years, will mature from juveniles to adult eagles and find their own mates.   Their heads and tails will in time sport beautiful white feathers which easily identifies them as adult bald eagles.

Last summer, while fishing in the Mammoth Lakes area of the High Sierras, I spotted for the first time a bald eagle high up in the trees.   It was so beautiful to see – and I was happy to realize they are coming back to the mountains after having been wiped out by a scourge brought on by human beings.

If you would like to watch the eagles for yourself, I would suggest two websites:  1)  To watch the eagles on live camera, go to:  www.iws.org and click on “Nest Cams”.   You can pick several nests to watch in real-time and there are bloggers watching the nests from all over the world.   Caution – live nest-watching is a little boring until the eagles lay and hatch their eggs.

2)   To catch just the highlights (which during the early stages is what I usually do at the end of the day), google “CHIL Eaglecam” and then click on “Nest Observations” which will allow you to see updates and highlight videos posted by eagle aficionados (some may call them “fanatics”).

Watching these birds has taught me a lot about life, parenting, sacrifice, and nature.   Perhaps they may also teach and inspire you too!

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