It Can Take Your Breath Away

Breath is an extremely important thing.

That statement would be almost universally affirmed for obvious reasons. So why do we often hear the expression that something would “take your breath away” as a means of describing a frightening or exhilarating experience? Perhaps just because breath is an extremely important thing.

One such experience for me is encountering an eagle in the wild. There is something about their power, grace and majestic beauty that makes me gasp in pure wonder. Most of the readers of this blog understand exactly what I mean. So hold your breath as I share a few of Roger’s amazing recent images!

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Orv is a excellent provider. He stays fairly busy bringing food to and from the nest. We have noticed that he prefers fishing over staying at home with the growing eaglets though. His time away from the nest is considerably longer than Willa’s. Sometimes he flies to the nest, drops off his catch and (quite literally) high tails it out of the area before Willa can give him a list of chores for the day. Carillon Historical Park is a popular fieldtrip destination, on many days hosting around 600 children. While addressing one group of around 20 fourth graders this week I quipped that Orv’s long absence from the nest would earn him a tongue lashing from Willa. One young boy spoke up saying, “No it won’t. He just has to tell Willa that he was practicing catching fish so he could better teach the eaglets when they fly.”

Coming or going, Orv is impressive. But I prefer coming.

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Willa’s beauty and grace seem boundless. When she takes flight the children scream with delight! Having become quite familiar with their habits it has become fairly easy to predict their immediate actions so I have begun encouraging class groups to wait a moment or two below the nest as one of the adults will soon depart. As the eagle steps up toward the rim of the nest I advise any nearby photographers to get ready to capture a departure.  If it is Willa taking flight, the oohs and ahs are instantaneous! And if she chooses to circle near the nest patrons throughout the park begin to point skyward.

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And Willa is no novice at hunting either! Seldom do the adults return home without grass, sticks or something tasty in their talons. (Providing you like raw meat, that is.)

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Then there are those rare moments that Orv and Willa frolic together for a short time making the sky over the park a wonderland of inspiration. Now that the eaglets are getting larger, Mom and Dad can steal a moment or two to strengthen their pair bond. The park’s red tailed hawks are less aggravating this year as the eaglets were hatched on schedule instead of a month later than normal for the area. The hawks have also apparently relocated their nest a bit further from Orv and Willa’s aerie but every now and then they still make their presence known. This relative calm makes brief moments of togetherness possible.

DSCN3190et2swSpeaking of the eaglets, at 45 days old they are becoming more and more noticeable and much more of an attraction for the park. Almost every day someone tells me that they came into the park just to see the eaglets! Sadly though, as the following image shows, we are only seeing two eaglets at a time, so we have likely lost one. That loss was somewhat expected as raising three eaglets to the point of fledging is a pretty demanding feat. But the two remaining eaglets look healthy, awkward and beautiful!

 

 

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Whether it is your first time or your millionth, each glimpse of these marvels excites and energizes the spirit. The Bible often uses the eagle as an illustration of God’s majestic grace and provision. Is it any wonder why? Encountering a wild eagle can turn an ordinary moment into a moment that can take your breath away!

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Published in: on May 15, 2019 at 10:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Celebrity Status

Celebrity has its costs.

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One of which is privacy!

Even the word “celebrity” has at its root the concept of being celebrated. When one is famous almost everything you do is somehow deemed newsworthy. A marriage, a speeding ticket, a trip to the beach, even something as private as a medical diagnosis is flashed across TV screens and magazine covers. And the cameras are everywhere! Paparazzi (like local eagle watcher, Greg) follow your every movement, even when you are just primping, preening and trying to scratch that itch that is just out of reach.

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How embarrassing! Poor Orv, no privacy at all.

And Willa is just as cursed with the curiosity that comes from fans of celebrities. She can’t even feed her three eaglets without every movement being watched and documented through telephoto lenses!

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(Wait!)

 

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(Did he say three?)

Why, yes Orv, I did! Orv and Willa have three eaglets in their Carillon Park nest! The oldest is just over three weeks old and the others are likely about two and four days younger. They are just now at a point where they are large enough and mobile enough to occasionally be seen from the ground.

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But boy are they cute!

Carillon Park has dubbed me their “eagle expert”, a name I wear with some chagrin. (The thing about being called an expert in anything is that the more you learn about a subject, the more acutely aware you become about your lack of knowledge. Maybe that is how the word  originated. “Pert” means sassy or saucy. So an ex-pert is no longer as sassy or saucy as they once were.) As such I share information with park visitors, many of whom have come just to view the eagles. I have also been interviewed by various media outlets hopefully encouraging folks to visit our human-acclimated eagles instead of disturbing more isolated nesting sites in the region. So let me do so here. If you are close to Dayton, stop by the park, meet some incredibly friendly people and view the eagles in person! Our pictures simply cannot capture their true beauty and grace. Orv will be perched by the entrance and looking for you.

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We are extremely excited about the possibility of having three eaglets fledge from the nest in late June or early July but three present some real challenges as well. The nest is about five to six feet in diameter, which may sound pretty big, but by June 12th the youngsters will be as big as Mom and Dad. That means 18 to 21 feet of juvenile wings flapping around and bopping sibling heads. The demands of feeding three eaglets will take its toll on Orv and Willa as well. During this past week both the former and current directors of The Glen Helen Raptor Center were in the park for individual visits and each voiced their concerns that bringing all three to a point of successfully fledging will be pushing the odds a bit. But it is possible.

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In the meantime, there will be an awful lot of activity in the air, in the nest and behind tripods around the park. All three television network affiliates are on board for the adventure as well as local print and radio media! But then that is as it should be considering Orv and Willa’s celebrity status!

Published in: on April 25, 2019 at 9:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Wait For It

Three funny little words, three short syllables, but they can carry a powerful punch.

While watching a video with a friend the first word might be spoken in a long, drawn out manner and the entire phrase repeated: “W…a…i…t for it. W…a…i…t for it.” letting you know that something unexpected, exciting or comical is about to happen. But by simply adding the word “just” to the phrase and speaking it in a terse manner you can sound like an exasperated parent responding to the whining, repetitive request of an impatient child: “Just wait for it!”

For young children, as well as for those of us a bit beyond childhood, waiting is not easy to do. Well, not if what you are waiting for is joyfully or fearfully anticipated. (Isn’t that odd? Waiting for a coming vacation is just as difficult as waiting for the results of a medical exam, meanwhile waiting for a table in a restaurant is usually no big deal.) But, then again, all waiting stinks. I don’t even like waiting through a TV commercial, or 8 to 10 consecutive commercials that are stuffed between 3 minute segments of a program. When we had no choice but to wait, back in the day, it didn’t bother me so, but now if I cannot fast-forward through the ads, I get frustrated. On the other hand, fast-forwarding through commercials means fewer trips to the refrigerator or kitchen cabinet for snacks. Commercials are unhealthy. (Where was I going again? Oh yeah, waiting!)

As a young man I twice found myself pacing hospital waiting rooms until I was ushered into the delivery room. (Who was the person who first thought that it was a good idea to put nervous, young fathers in that environment anyway? My wife and her doctor even concocted this thing called a “due date”. When I first heard the term I thought it was a question and answered, “Not anymore. I’m married.” Then I thought it had to do with when the doctor expected to be paid. Eventually I learned that it was a wild guess as to when young fathers would be pacing waiting room floors before passing out in delivery rooms. The problem was, nobody informed the baby! I mean, really, shouldn’t someone have notified the guest of honor? After all, it is the baby’s coming out party!)

Anyway, baby eagles have a due date of 35 days after their egg is deposited in the nest. Now eagles are a bit different from people in that both Mom and Dad incubate. Therefore they each have ample opportunity to pace the floor (or limb) as they wait for it. Willa paced like a pro!

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Now we knew from Willa and Orv’s behavior that the first egg arrived on Sunday, February 24th, so we were able to calculate that the due date for hatching was March 31st. (That really wasn’t that hard to figure out but we paid a doctor to complete those calculations decades ago.) Like good expectant uncles and aunts, we spent the last week of March waiting for it and pacing. On the 31st Roger caught Orv carrying a catfish head to the nest.

 

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He thought that maybe Orv was feeding an eaglet but I quipped that maybe he just wanted to get “ahead” of this whole parenting thing.

Now I remember my wife constantly moving about the house to prepare it for our daughters’ arrivals, creating a soft, welcoming environment for our babies. In fact, they even called her behavior “nesting”!  Well, Orv and Willa took nesting quite literally!

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Whichever one was not in the nest coped with the angst of waiting by flying back and forth with talons full of grass to cushion and nestle their babies. (Again, way cheaper than the way we prepared for our daughters’ arrivals!)

The 31st came and left with no apparent eaglet. (Had someone forgotten to notify the eaglet of the due date?) The 31st of March was bitterly cold and the 1st of April was bit better weather for pacing. But we felt like April fools as we paced and watched nothing interesting happening. Now my self-education and 10 years of experience had taught me that escaping from an egg shell is no easy task for a little eaglet. There is no room in the shell’s confines for exercising so an eaglet must pip a hole and rest, make it larger and rest, pick at it a little more and rest. Work until exhausted then sleep in a repetitive pattern. (Sounds a lot like the first weeks of parenthood, doesn’t it? Well, except that sleep part. I don’t recall much sleep.) It sometimes takes the eaglet about 48 hours to completely escape its fragile prison and once out in the fresh air and warm and cozy under Mom or Dad, it sleeps some more. So long ago I had added 35 days of incubation + 2 days of egg-scaping + 1 day of egg-saustion = 38 days! All of that complicated math brings us to April 3rd, which was yesterday.

And yesterday was sunny and warm and we saw (W…a…i…t for it!) this!

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Orv carried to the nest one whopper of a fish! Enough to feed a family! Then we watched from the ground as he left his catch with Willa and went to a nearby tree as she shredded the fish into bits and leaned forward to put tiny morsels into her new eaglet’s mouth!

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Now the question is how many eaglets. There are typically two, but one or three are possibilities and much more rarely four. Any siblings will hatch over the next few days, usually with a day or two between hatchings. We will guess if there are more than one by the amount of hunting and feeding we see, but we won’t know for sure for a few weeks yet. When the eaglets grow strong enough to climb up from the nursery floor and peek over the edge of the nest, (now that my math skills are all warmed up) counting bobbleheads should be pretty easy. By June 12th they will be fully feathered and as big as Mom and Dad and around June 26th they will be ready to fledge!

Today as I stood along the roadway that separates the park from the river, a very tired Orv passed low overhead.

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I know what long hours lie ahead for him and his mate but I also know from experience that that time and energy is well invested. Eventually he landed in the tree above me and took a 5 minute breather. As I watched he stared blankly into space.

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There was something very familiar in that stare. New parents have a lot on their minds. More questions than answers. More duties than time allows. But in the midst of that hour they somehow know that God will provide what they need in His perfect timing.

All they have to do is trust Him and wait for it!

Published in: on April 5, 2019 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment  

It’s a Spring Thing

Spring has sprung and winter’s done!

I have never been a fan of shivering so the promise of warmer weather is as much appreciated as it was anticipated. But spring is welcomed by Dayton’s eagles as well because it is the season of new beginnings.

Orv and Willa’s first eaglet of the year should hatch in just 10 days so we are in the ants-in-your-pants stage (that’s not a technical term) of waiting. Visitors to Carillon Park have asked me why hatching in early spring is so important and the answer is “winter”. It takes 7 months or so to get the eaglet from a newly arrived egg to self-sufficiency before encountering winter’s demands. That is the challenge that Orv and Willa will face this year and every year for the next two decades. For now they incubate the egg (or eggs) and rest, conserving energy for the demands that begin in 10 short days.

So while we wait together, let’s enjoy a few images of Orv and Willa as they do what they do so well: inspire!

RGP 1116 In Roger’s image above you can see Willa’s brood patch. Feathers are made of keratin, just like our fingernails, and layers of feathers that trap air provide a wonderfully effective insulation system to protect the eagle from the elements. But those same feathers also become a barrier that keeps the heat generated by the incubating adult’s 106 degree body temperature from reaching the egg. Ergo, a brood patch develops where feathers fall out and warm skin is exposed! Fascinating design and function!

The following images are also Roger’s work. They show Orv and Willa coming and going, bringing home soft bedding material, or just making their presence known.

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Here are a few images of activity at the nest captured over the last few weeks. I will never tire of seeing the look in a child’s eyes as they see a wild eagle for the very first time. That childlike excitement even shows when those eyes have seen 7 decades or more of life!

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Maybe being only 10 short days away from hatching explains why I found Willa scratching her head and possibly wondering, “What was I thinking?”

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The group of photographers and watchers continues to grow as the big day draws near. There are sometimes nearly a dozen people in the park or along the river levee straining to catch a glimpse of Orv or Willa as the eagles go about their duties with diligence and grace. Every now and then I like to introduce you to another talented photographer. The following two images of Orv were captured by Beth Larsen and are posted here with her permission. (OK, I actually asked to use one image but come on now, how can anyone decide which one?) I hope you enjoy her stunning work.

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These birds are beyond amazing and reflect the beauty and majestic gracefulness of their Creator. As the weather warms, so do my hopes and dreams for this year’s eaglets. Tomorrow is full of promise and possibilities and I just can’t help but embrace the growing anticipation of the blessings that lie ahead as this new season dawns. It’s a spring thing!

Published in: on March 22, 2019 at 12:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Are We There Yet?

Every parent that has ever taken the family on a road trip knows the emotions associated with that simple little question. Flowing from a child’s lips to a parent’s ears those words can bring a smile and a wink or a frown and a grimace. The parent’s response often depends on how many times the question has reached their ears…. in the last 5 minutes!

But why is the question asked in the first place and why is it asked so repeatedly?

“Are we there yet?” often flows from the heart of a frustrated child, anxious to be somewhere they are not. That frustration grows in the fertile soil of expectation. And when liberally watered with anticipation, frustration can grow like a weed! (The truth be told, that same process is playing out in the mind of the parent as well. That is why the smile and wink evolve into the frown and grimace. When the child first asks the question the parent answers and expects the child to be satisfied with that answer. When the question is asked again and again the parent anticipates the peace and quiet of some magical future moment when the child’s curiosity will be sated… or at least they will drift off to sleep. When that fails to happen, expectation + anticipation = frustration!)

The approach of each nesting season plants that same process in my heart.

My expectations grow as eggs arrive in Florida, then Georgia, then Tennessee… As February comes I anticipate our nesting season’s arrival. Jim and Cindy were extremely punctual, always laying the first egg near Valentine’s Day. So when that week came and left with no egg in either of our Dayton nests I found my frustrated heart daily asking, “Are we there yet?”

We’re there!!!

Three days ago, on a bitterly chilly and windy day, shortly after noon, we arrived. The persistent winds were in the 30mph range and the frequent gusts were pushing 60mph! Just outside of Carillon Park, the normally placid Great Miami Refrigerator where Orv and Willa store their fish (already running high and looking quite muddy from recent rains and melting snow) appeared to be flowing backwards with wind-driven surface water.

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This made standing to photograph our eagles a real challenge. We must have looked like meteorologists documenting an approaching hurricane. Even our vehicles were shaking in the gusts. But still Roger was able to capture the moment with clarity.

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That is Willa silently saying “We’re here.” as only a mother can. We knew we were close because all the signs were right. Just like seeing familiar landmarks as you near you destination these past few days assured us that we were getting close. Of course there was this necessary sign.

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(Actually we passed that sign so frequently we could have been driving in circles.) We also noticed that the nest was becoming more of an attraction than before. In the world of eagles where breeding takes place only once annually, the nest serves a very specific and limited purpose. It is a nursery. Although resident eagles may check on the nest every now and then and add sticks over a period of months, they only stay in their nests when they need it to meet that purpose. Instincts come and go gradually. Orv and Willa had been earnestly remodeling with sticks and softer materials like river grass. That focus slowly fades as they spend more time together. Gradually the nest becomes a focal point of a different kind as Orv began catching fish and leaving them in the nest so Willa could come to dine on his gift. Each activity serves as another landmark on our journey of anticipation.

Last week I caught this behavior.

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Now their pair-bond is strong and their interaction is often very tender but after consuming an Orv-provided fish, Willa landed on this branch. Orv left the adjacent tree, flew to the nest to eat the scraps and take out the garbage (without being asked to do so!). He then flew in and landed a few inches from her. She sidled up against him and whispered something into his ear and judging by his expression I’m guessing it was, “You’re gonna be a daddy.” Five days later the egg arrived.

Laying that first egg was a lot of work so when Orv took over incubation duties Willa felt like dancing!

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The “big event” made us feel like dancing too! We were finally there! It also made the news as each of the area television affiliates (ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX) have interviewed me about the egg’s arrival. There are only two nests in Dayton but there are a dozen or more nests in the local viewing area and more will be started this fall as local eagles mature. Most of these nests are in remote settings where human activity may be alarming to nesting eagles and curious humans can cause a nest to fail (not produce or fledge eaglets) by causing stress for the nesting adults, just by being in the area. Five of those nests welcomed their first egg of 2019 between last Thursday and Sunday (including Jim and Hope who are back in the old Treetop Palace this season!). Disturbing and stressing a nesting eagle can be fatal for the embryonic or young eaglet and it is a federal crime. But Orv and Willa are different. They have chosen a very public setting where human activity is a normal part of their environment. My hope is that by promoting Orv and Willa’s activities those curious humans will come to Carillon Park and not unintentionally harass more remote nests.

Now is the time to visit the park to see Orv and Willa in action. The trees are still without leaves which makes watching them and photographing them a lot easier. The Wright Brothers National Museum is within the private Carillon Park and within the museum’s Wright Hall is the original Wright Flyer III, the flying machine that Orville and Wilbur perfected at Huffman Prairie. And Orv and Willa’s nest is directly above Wright Hall!

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But the real reason to come this nesting season is the possibility of witnessing sights like these passing or perched just overhead!

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In about 35 days, around March 31st, the first egg should hatch. Already the anticipation is building and I know that my heart will soon be asking, “Are we there yet?”

Published in: on February 27, 2019 at 10:34 am  Leave a Comment  

While We Wait

Today is February 15th. Why is that date important? No, not because of the after Valentines Day candy sales that give forgetful, embarrassed men the chance to redeem themselves. We have a much better reason to look forward to this date! For each of the last 8 years Jim and his mates (Cindy and then Hope) have welcomed their first egg of the season between February 15th and February 17th. It is an almost magical window around these parts! Here is a brief update.

Jim and Hope have been seen at both their Treetop Palace and their Treetop Mansion in the past few weeks. The palace served the Eastwood pair well from 2011 through 2017 and last year the newer mansion proved successful. Today I was unable to spot them at either nest so we will have to see. If they are in either nest they can be hard to see at that 1/2 mile distance.

Orv and Willa have the Carillon nest ready to go! I watched them for several hours yesterday. They spent most of that time lining the nest with clumps of river grass. With both of them in and out of the nest we know that their are no eggs yet. Here are a few images from yesterday’s nestorations.

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They have been working extremely hard but in the process they have managed to bring to the nest a stick entangled in what appears to be an produce bag like small quantities of fruit and vegetables are often sold in. It is visible in the following image to Willa’s right. We don’t dare disturb them during this crucial time so we are hoping that additional sticks may bury the potential threat as the eagles continue to build.

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But while we wait for the first egg of 2019 we continue to track their activities. During a recent prolonged downpour we found Orv and Willa drying their feathers in a brief dry break in the rain.

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Have you every seen other birds do this? Vultures, hawks and other large birds will air dry their feathers in this manner. For decades it was pretty common to see eagles exhibiting this behavior after storms. Here is a view of Willa from the front.

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Now you know where the common term “spread eagle” originated.

Eagles can fly while wet but the extra weight and the dampness has got to be a bit uncomfortable. Poor Willa was really soaked!

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So for now they continue to build and we continue to wait.

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But we are sure enjoying the show while we wait!

Published in: on February 15, 2019 at 4:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

On the Cusp

Now there is a word I seldom hear anymore, “cusp”.

In fact, I looked through 3 dictionaries before I could find the word even listed. Cusp means the intersecting point of two arcs, the tip, the nib, the point, the edge of something. It carries in its four little letters the idea of a definitive point, the brink of something new, a beginning. Therefore the word aptly applies. We do again find ourselves on the cusp of the revelation of a new adventure!

My last posting spoke of the bitter cold weather that an arctic blast was forcing upon the Dayton region and of an imaginary dream in which our Carillon Park eagles, Orv and Willa, conversed about the approaching nesting season. But the bitter, sub-zero weather brought the sting of reality home with a vengeance! The air was so frigid that breathing it in frosted one’s nostrils and made aging joints ache. It was miserable weather to spend outside but that is where the eagles were,  so that was where we too could be found.

But the cold snap proved to be short-lived. Snaps are like that. They arrive quickly, get your attention and then leave. We were happy to see this snap go! In a matter of 3 days our sub-zero highs had vanished and we were enjoying temperatures near 60 degrees! The groundhog even cooperated with a prediction of an early spring! So you can imagine our excitement as Sunday, February 3rd, brought glorious sunshine our way! We were like school children on the first day of summer vacation, rushing out to make the most of it all!

 

(Now many of you dear readers cannot venture out to see our eagles for yourselves so every now and then I like to take you along with me to share the adventure as it unfolds. So grab a light jacket and I will pick you up in a few minutes! Don’t forget your sunglasses. It’s a glorious day out there!)

 

There is a hint (just a slight hint) of spring in the air and a greater spring in my step as I head out the door early this Sunday afternoon. I know that we are on the cusp of a new nesting season and I’m growing anxious with anticipation. As I pull up to your door I move my camera to the back seat and tap on the horn. I really didn’t need to bother because you were already bounding my way. “You ready for this?” I ask as you buckle up. “More than ready!” you sing through your smile.

As we drive toward Carillon Park we chat about the crazy weather swing and the associated sinus pressure. “It is usually hard for me to get out on a Sunday with church and other activities.” I explain, “But today my wife said that she just wanted to stay in and rest and even suggested that I swing by the park to see how the eagles are enjoying the sunshine! I think she may have said something after that but I was already on my way out the door!” You chuckle and grin in total understanding. The weather has been so challenging lately that today carried even greater promise!

On our way we carefully scan the treetops along the river hoping for a hint of where the eagles might be today. We joke about our time-tested observation that when you have wonderful daylight you usually don’t have eagles but when the lighting is lousy they almost land on your car. As we pull onto Carillon Boulevard we can already see the Garber pickup parked on the distant shoulder along with several other familiar cars. I assume that Marcia must be with Roger today since he isn’t driving his Jeep.

As soon as we park Roger calls out, “You just missed it!” and flashes a playful, bearded smile our way. “Now don’t tell us that!” you moan as we cross the road. “Check this out.” he says while pointing to the nearby tripod holding his camera and its huge lens. (There’s that smile again.) We both look at the camera’s display and see this image.

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“No way!” we shout in unison, “No way!”

“Yep! Just a few minutes ago they were on the top of the levee across the river and…well…that happened!” We spend a minute or two kicking ourselves for not arriving sooner and then ask, “Where are they now?” “Flew north.” Roger states flatly as he points upstream. (He is often a man of few words.) “But I suspect they’ll be back.” he adds.

Knowing that the first eggs in the Dayton nests usually arrive near Valentine’s week and knowing that it will be 5 to 10 days after successfully mating before an egg arrives we calculate February 8 to 13 as the possible start of incubation. How about that? Right on schedule! For several minutes we stand there with our fellow eagle watchers and discuss the virtues of waiting for their return or looking for them upstream. That is when Roger’s cell phone rings and another eagle watcher reports that Willa has just landed in a favorite tree on the north edge of downtown. Instantly we all silently consider the same obvious factors: beautiful sunlight, no eagles here, at least one eagle there. “So why are we here?” you ask. “We aren’t.” is my reply as we cross the street to my car.

It is just a 5 minute ride to Willa’s perch and as we travel north on I-75 we think about the joy of having urban eagles that are so accustomed to human activity, perching above roadways and near parking lots. Our presence in this urban setting poses no stress at all for the birds who are frequently seen sitting above pedestrian and vehicular traffic. As much as we wish they were in less threatening rural surroundings, their choice of nesting in the city provides us with opportunities that we could never enjoy elsewhere. Still, we respect their need for space and our long lenses allow us to capture decent images from several hundred feet away.

As we arrive at the parking lot near the perched Willa, there are a few other cars already there. Willa sits stoically atop a decades old tree that has known better days. This very tree was a favorite perch of Jim and Cindy when they first arrived back in 2008, ending our 70 years of eagle-less skies. The sunlight plays beautifully on the big girl’s feathers as she silently watches the river flow by, just east of her tree.

Other cars are now arriving from the group near Carillon Park and the hum of passing cars on the roadway is soon mixed with the chatter of camera shutters.

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“Isn’t she something?” someone asks, not really needing an answer.

As we watch Willa, she sits and watches everything. Joggers pass by on the bikeway. Two large German Shepherds are lapping up river water as the are walked along the far side of the river. Dogs and their owners are enjoying the sunshine and warmth at the nearby dog park. A seemingly endless parade of semis rumble down I-75. And Willa watches it all.

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The power of her eyesight is matched only by the power of her presence as she poses majestically on her lofty, wooden throne. We are within a few hundred feet of where the aerie that was abandoned 1938 had stood for decades. The eagles of that nest had witnessed history in the making as the 1913 flood tried to wash Dayton off the map and also as Orville and Wilbur Wright made history of their own a decade prior. Now we stand here and watch another resident eagle in the tree top. We are impressed by Willa but she is totally unimpressed by all of us as she casually preens her feathers.

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“Could this day get any better?” you ask.

“Here comes Orv!” fellow eagle watcher Patty exclaims as she points to the north. Moments later Orv comes flying in over the river and swoops up to land next to his mate on the weather-worn limb. I answer your question, “Yes, yes it can.”

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What a sight! When Orv and Willa arrived in Dayton last year we had wondered if Orv was old enough to reproduce but he proved that he was. In January of 2018 Roger, Marcia, myself and maybe three or four others watched them as they daily fished these waters and now there are hundreds aware of their presence. They started incubation in March last year, a month late, and I began hanging out in Carillon Historical Park pointing them out to park patrons who were unaware of their presence above Wright Hall. Eventually the park staff asked, “If you’re going to be here anyway, would you like to volunteer as our eagle expert?” The rest is history. What a year it has been!

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Upon arrival Orv leans over and taps his beak to Willa’s beak. This behavior is sometimes called “beaking” and is like a form of pair-bonded kissing. Some in the parking lot have never witnessed this behavior before. You are impressed! “That is amazing!” you sigh. (I have to agree.)

They sit there together, contented with each other’s presence, for quite a while.

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Noisy Canada Geese pass by but they are not amused. European Starlings and American Robins visit neighboring trees but the eagles seem uninterested.  International avian activities are the furthest things from their minds for they are together and it is mating time.

Oh, they are always aware of their surroundings, it’s just that right now they simply don’t care. Once in a while they glance our way but only momentarily.

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Then they go right back to simply being together.

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That is as it should be. They will need a strong mutual bond to survive the rigorous demands of the next 6 or 7 months of incubation, brooding, feeding, flight training and hunting lessons. And with nesting Red Tail Hawks in the park and Peregrine Falcons nearby, protecting their vulnerable eaglets may be challenging at times.

As we have come to expect, it is Orv that breaks the mood of the moment by getting hungry. He leaves the tree and Willa follows. We watch as he dives down and grabs a fish from the river with his talons. Willa makes a quick loop above him as he hunts and heads back to a nearby tree, a bit farther away. While Orv…

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brings his fish almost back to where they had been perched together and begins…

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to dine.

We stand there with our fellow eagle-watching friends and watch the eagles. Willa sits in her tree and Orv devours his prey in his tree. He is totally into his meal, looking up only occasionally to survey his surroundings and glance at his mate. Shadows are now starting to stretch to the east as the sun moves west. When he is done eating Orv marches up the limb…

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cleans his talons and his beak…

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and then with a full crop and Willa perched close by, a very contented Orv smiles at in our direction…

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before taking wing and flying off!

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Willa soon follows.

As we head back home we are warmed not just by the sunlight but by the memories we have made. “It is a pretty rare thing to have eagles and sunlight together.” you say, “But it is fantastic when it finally happens and we were there to enjoy it!” I nod in agreement. “What’s next?” I wonder out loud. “We have had subzero highs, ice, snow and now bright sunshine, warm weather and eagles! I can’t imagine anything we’ve missed.” “What about spring monsoons?” you suggest.

As I drop you off I wonder. Maybe monsoons are just around the corner. I don’t know. But with Orv and Willa mating, nesting season is sure to begin soon. Some thing big is about to happen! I can sense it! We are on the cusp!

Published in: on February 8, 2019 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bitterly Cold

A bitterly cold Arctic blast is heading for Dayton! Tomorrow’s high will be below zero for many with wind-chill temperatures of around -30 degrees! That is cold, bitterly cold! But it will also be short-lived as we will be in the +40s in 4 days. Our eagles will weather the cold thanks to their more than 7,200 interlocking feathers, most of which trap layers of body heat to insulate them from the cold.

So here I sit on my comfy couch with a mug of hot chocolate, my dog at my side and a fire in the fireplace. All is calm as I type on my laptop and think about everything that I saw yesterday as I visited Carillon Park on a very cloudy, but somewhat warmer day. I wish the images had been sharper but considering the distance and the cloud cover, they are what they (yawn) are. I can only imagine the conversation going on between Orv and Willa as I (yawn) watched the story unfold. With my belly warmed by the hot chocolate and the room warmed (yawn) by the fire, thoughts of eagles fill my mind as I drift… off… to….. sleep….. remembering the….. day as I…… begin to dream.

***

I pull the Batmobile (hey, this is my dream) to the shoulder of Carillon Boulevard and look left to find the nest in the distance. There it is! Pretty easy to see now in the barren trees. I feel a bit of extra warmth course through me as I see that both Orv and Willa are in the nest. Even in this heavily filtered light and at this distance their white heads are pretty noticeable!

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As I step out into the chilly air the ever vigilant eagles look my way. All looks well at the aerie. As the traffic flows down the road I wonder how many commuters are still unaware of the wonders in the sycamore just 1/4 mile south of the roadway. (Or even more shockingly, how many would be uninterested in them at all?) I watch them sit there for about ten minutes. They aren’t really working on the nest, just sitting in it. With egg laying just a few weeks away (if not sooner) it is good to see them in the nest together. The fact that they are both up and moving around informs me that there are no eggs yet but I can tell by their behavior that the nesting instinct is getting stronger with every passing day.

Suddenly Orv launches from the nest!

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I try to watch him as he passes behind several trees, seeing more movement than the actual eagle as he flies. Is he looking for sticks or food or just exercising his majestic wings? Eventually he emerges from the trees, quite a way upstream from where I stand. To my disappointment he seems to be flying further away but as I watch him he turns and flies back towards me with his eyes on the water! Perhaps flying with the current’s flow make spotting and catching a fish less difficult in these murky conditions or maybe flying into the dim sunlight aids his amazing eyes in seeing what swims just below the surface. I don’t know the answers but I love to watch the process unfold!

Suddenly Orv gains a foot or two more altitude and changes his attitude! He pivots left on one wingtip and begins to dive! He has spotted his prey!

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As I look across the river I see him actually hit the water with quite a splash! This wasn’t his normal, tips of the toes snatch and grab catch but a much more Osprey-esque approach.

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He has taken this approach before when snatching a good size fish so I assume that is the case now. Also this fish was apparently feeding among the weeds in the shallow water which would make snatching it on the fly more difficult. In just a moment or two I see the situation more clearly. Orv has caught quite a whopper and it is putting up quite a fight!

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I watch as the eagle pounces and rebalances itself on its prey. This is a battle for survival for both the eagle and the fish and neither will give up or give in. But this is also a battle that the eagle is going to win. Predator and prey. Life in the wild in the middle of a city. The fish soon is subdued by its conqueror. The predator has won and Orv lumbers awkwardly as he drags his catch to a slightly higher piece of soggy earth.

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There he stands upon his prey looking like Orv The Great, conqueror of all his foes. As mating season dawns male eagles get a bit more aggressive and territorial, a trait necessary for the protection of their own nest and offspring, but Orv looks downright cocky! He stands there apparently posing for some imaginary magazine cover for Fields and Dreams. 

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Then stepping up onto his prize he first looks one way and then the other hoping that someone has witnessed his epic battle. “Surely those ever-present photographers are here some where!” he thinks. “Where are they when you need them?”

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I have to admit that I am impressed by his catch but our boy Orv is taking this thing a bit too far! Then he does something that is just over the top when it comes to cockiness! Seeing no photographers and hearing no thunderous applause from adoring spectators, he decides to celebrate all by himself with a little end zone dance of his own!

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But his celebration abruptly stops when he notices some visitors from the north passing by. He is the national symbol after all.

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A bit more composed now, our jubilant friend remembers why he went fishing in the first place: HE IS HUNGRY! So once again throwing dignity to the wind, he begins to devour his prey. But even with his mouth full I can still hear him humming a little victory tune.

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Soon Orv has sated his appetite and his trophy catch is no more. Leaving a few remains behind, he waddles forward for a cool drink or two. I have to admit that I am really impressed by his beauty as he stands in the shallow water, but my admiration of Orv seems exceedingly surpassed by his own.

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Soon he takes flight again. His crop and his ego are both noticeably inflated as he passes overhead and lands in a nearby tree. Thinking that he is petty hot stuff he sits alone…

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but not for long!

I had failed to notice another eagle overhead but I am sure that Orv had seen her. A large female drifts high above us.

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As soon as Orv has reached his treetop perch, she begins descending towards him. She lands in the same tree, just 8 feet away. At first I assume that it is Willa but before I can gather my thoughts my eyes are caught by a flash of movement through the trees!

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This is Willa! From the direction of the nest she flies with a determined and agitated wingbeat. She is upset and someone is going to hear about it! I am dumbfounded as Willa makes a sharp turn and heads right towards the perched female! She is still 50 feet away when the female launches herself. Orv is possibly as dumbfounded as I as Willa zips low over his head screaming what sounds an awful lot like, “Oh no you don’t sister! This one’s taken! Hit the road you hussy!” For the next 2 minutes Orv and I watch the chase as the female circles and dodges with Willa just a few feet off her tail feathers. Past the nest, around the big blue Callahan clock, over the moraine and past the Carillon bell tower! It is fascinating! Finally “Hussy” continues upstream as Willa returns to the nest. I watch the intruding female circle once or twice as if to gather herself before she dissolves into the distant haze.

I look at Orv and he looks down at me and we both smile with admiration for Willa.

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Now, overly inflated egos can get you into trouble by making you say and do some pretty stupid things but we males are often slow learners. Orv immediately makes his way back to the nest where the still fuming Willa is waiting for him. “What was that all about?” Orv asks. (See what I mean about doing stupid things?) Willa lights into him like a wild, angry eagle! “What were you thinking? Who was that hussy? What about Me? Were you even considering my feelings? Had you completely forgotten about our bond?…” The questions are coming at such a furious rate that poor Orv just stutters and slinks farther and farther back into the nest!

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You can almost hear the hissing sound of his ego deflating. His eyes are wide in disbelief as she bows her head in disgust and disappointment. He wants to say that the roving female had just wanted directions or that she was just resting her wings but he knew in his heart that he had been flattered by her attention. He had been seeking a little adoration ever since landing that fish and she had come along at just the right time. His crop is still full but his ego is now empty. “Just give me some space to cool down.” Willa pleads and Orv is more than happy to comply. He manages to say, “I’m truly sorry.” as he leans out of the nest and flies to a nearby tree.

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There he sits alone with his thoughts. The day had started so wonderfully, working side by side with Willa as they had put more finishing touches on the nest. They had talked about how tired they were and about the coming nesting season and how they hoped for better, happier results than last year’s tragic losses. That is when it hits him. It was just then that his stomach had grumbled and he had flown to the river leaving his mate alone with the memories of last year’s losses. For the next hour Orv sits silently in the “doghouse” tree and hangs his head in shame.

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Meanwhile Willa sits in the nest composing herself and realizing that Orv was still grieving too. She knew deep down that he was devoted to her but she needed time. She looks towards the “doghouse” tree but Orv had quietly and purposely positioned himself behind the tree’s trunk and out of her line of sight.

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And there they stay for quite some time. Alone together. Each wanting to say, “I’m sorry.” but neither quite knowing how.

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Eventually it is Willa who takes the initiative and flies to a tree near the park entrance. When she is only 100 feet from the nest Orv begins to follow her. He lands a few feet from her, still respecting her space.

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Willa sits there and stares off into space.

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Before long Orv nonchalantly mutters under his breath, “Bet she’ll never do that again.” And Willa answers, “She’d better not!” Orv thinks that he had noticed the hint of a smile on her face. “I’m sorry.” he cautiously but sincerely adds. “I know. Me too.” Willa quietly responds as she inches a bit closer to her mate. Just at that moment the chilliness begins to warm.

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***

 

The chilliness in the room awakens me from my dream but my faithful dog slumbers on, undisturbed and peacefully content. As I lay aside my laptop and arise to put another log on the fire, I contemplate how winter weather and relationships both heat up gradually after things unexpectedly become bitterly cold.

 

Published in: on January 29, 2019 at 6:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

How Can You Tell?

That is a question that has so many possible answers.

As a stand alone query it makes little sense but in the context of various conversations that simple, little question blossoms into a myriad of variegated blooms. The context determines the facts that determine the answers. Take the weather for instance. If I say, “It’s going to rain.” and you ask that little question, the towering thunderheads may hold the answer. If I lament, “This may take a while.” the crowded restaurant may be a clue. Or if I groan, “This is going to be a long ride!” the answer may lie in the squabbling siblings in the back seat as we leave the driveway. Context matters.

So, if I say that nesting season is almost here, that question’s answer may be all around us. And it is!

With over 1,000 followers to this blog and with so many other viewers to boot, I must remember that for many of you, this is your first encounter with nesting Bald Eagles. Every year I am asked, “How can you tell?” Well, the signs are all there and all systems are go! First of all, the calendar is a clue as late winter is nesting time in Ohio. Eagles nesting in Florida now have eaglets in their nests. Eagles in Georgia are currently incubating eggs. Every year I get excited watching the nesting season move north and the anticipation grows stronger with each passing week! Our Ohio eagles typically welcome eggs in February. Eastwood’s Jim and Cindy (and now Jim and Hope) have always gone to nest (rather appropriately) just after Valentine’s Day. Last year Orv and Willa were a month late but they started nest building several months late and were rapidly running out of time. As first-time-nesters they really did pretty well, but this year both pairs are right on schedule! “How can I tell?” you ask? Well togetherness is a key as breeding approaches and our eagles have been very…shall we say…chummy lately. Last Thursday I took this distant picture of Jim and Hope.

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If you look closely you can see their 2018 nest through the trees, half way up the right side of the image. The other nests are part of a large heronry in the wellfield. Their aerie looks ready to go for another successful year.

That same day I found Orv and Willa once again sharing a limb together in one of their favorite trees.

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(By the way, did you notice that even though both eagles were looking at me, Willa actually had her back towards the camera.) As breeding time draws near the eagles become inseparable. If they aren’t side by side, they are usually within a few hundred feet of one another.

Another sign is seeing Orv leave the nest like this…

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and then return to the nest like this!

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Did you notice a difference? That is a pretty good sign that either he was working on the nest or found a really good deal on an old, discarded Christmas tree!

So by now you may be wondering, “How can you tell when there are actually eggs in the nest?” Well, without cameras above the nest we have to rely on what we can see, especially the behavior of the adults. Here is what we can watch for (and perhaps you can join us as we watch). Mating. OK, that is a pretty obvious first step but you will have to admit that it is absolutely necessary. (I have always thought that it takes quite a bit of faith on the female’s part to allow her talon-clad male to hop onto her back.) Mating can happen any time now (and probably is) as it happens rather quickly, but fairly frequently too. Our eagle watchers only view the eagles a little each day so there is a good chance that we may miss it all together and not really know when mating occurs. But that’s alright because the eagles deserve some privacy after all.

Now for some more technical stuff. The next signs are much more observable as they will all happen at the nest and since Orv and Willa’s nest is in a very public spot, someone will see the following activities. Willa will spend more time in the nest. She will spend less time moving sticks around and more time sitting quietly in the bowl as the egg laying draws near. She will still fly off with Orv to do “eagle things” like add a stick or two, perch and hunt. If they fly off together we know that there are no eggs yet. By far, the most anticipated and biggest clue will be when she stays in the nest bowl for a while, eventually flies off and Orv immediately hops down into the bowl. There is really no reason for the male to just sit in the nest unless he is taking a turn incubating an egg. If the nursery floor is high enough and the walls are low enough, we may see the tail feathers and wingtips of the adult in the nest pointing upward at about a 30 to 45 degree angle. This happens because the parents develop a brood patch near their lower chest to expose the eggs to their warm flesh. With the brood patch towards the egg, the tail feathers and wingtips slope upward. The adult will remain rather stationary in the nest for hours, rising only occasionally to inspect and roll the egg and to gather soft nesting material around the egg. The egg must be kept warm as the eaglet develops inside and it needs to be rotated to keep the embryo from attaching to the inside of the shell’s wall. This rolling also keeps the developing eaglet uniformly warm. Willa will lay between 1 to 3 eggs, each a day or two apart. Typically there will be 2 eggs in the annual clutch but rarely there may be as many as 4. Each egg will hatch in about 35 days, in the order in which they were deposited in the nest. The first hatched eaglet will have a big advantage over its siblings but that story can wait for a future posting. It is absolutely crucial that the eagles are not disturbed during incubation and the first few weeks after hatching occurs! Exposure to the elements will cause the egg to fail or kill a young eaglet as it cannot yet regulate its own body temperature. (When the eagle nest is in a more remote location, human activity near the nest is a real threat to the success of the nesting season. Well-meaning and curious drone operators may not realize that trying to fly a camera over an active nest can be life threatening to the eggs, the eaglets and the protective adult eagle. Disturbing a nesting eagle is a federal crime.) Another sign of eggs in the nest will be if we see the non-incubating adult (usually the male) bring food to the nest for its mate. The rotation of incubation duties is yet another sign to watch for. As one adult leaves, the mate will hop down into the nest. An additional sign is what I call “the egg waddle”. When there are eggs in the nest, the adults will cup their talons up towards the balls of their feet and walk on their knuckles. This keeps them from accidently piercing the eggs and causes them to visibly waddle in the nest. During incubation the adult out of the nest will often perch nearby to protect the eggs and its mate from all potential attacks from owls, hawks or any other threat. (I always warn first-timers that many things can go wrong in this whole process. Allow yourself to enjoy the thrill of watching wild Bald Eagles nest and nurture their eaglets. It is quite an adventure that will draw you into its thrills over the weeks ahead! But always remember that life in the wild is wild. As we saw last year here in Dayton and elsewhere, attachment has its risks as well as its rewards.)

Orv and Willa (and Jim and Hope) are ready to give it ago. It is what they were designed to do and they do it very well. Roger recently ran across Willa and asked her how big her expectations were for the new nesting season. She raised her wings and said, “This big!”

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There is a real thrill in watching a wild American Bald Eagle in flight. Nothing personifies freedom quite like those majestic wings effortlessly gracing an open sky. America will face some challenges in 2019. We always do. But with faith and determination we will soar!

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If you are in Carillon Park, look me up. I am hoping to spend a little time near the nest almost daily, talking eagle to park visitors. You’ll know me by the name badge on my  coat, the camera around my neck, the scope on my tripod, the spring in my step and the smile on my face! Let’s hope for a very successful nesting season! Come on Orv and Willa! You’ve got this!

What’s that? You think I’m excited? How can you tell?

Published in: on January 10, 2019 at 12:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

At The Speed Of …

“Look! Quick! Oh, no! It’s gone! Did you see it? It was amazing! I tried to capture it with my camera to preserve it forever but I just wasn’t prepared. I wish I had been ready. I wish I had been paying better attention, but it got away.”

Similar words are too often spoken in my conversations with fellow wildlife photographers. As we stand together watching a majestic eagle perched in a tree, we wait expectantly in anticipation of catching an image of the bird launching into flight. Inevitably we begin to converse and slowly we move our attention to our words, a wading heron or even just a scampering squirrel and miss the opportunity as the eagle flies off.

But today I am not referring to a wild eagle but to the passing year. “Look! Quick! Oh, no! It’s gone! Did you see it? It was amazing! I tried to capture it with my camera to preserve it forever but I just wasn’t prepared. I wish I had been ready. I wish I had been paying better attention, but it got away.”

Isn’t it amazing how quickly 365 days can zoom by? And the older we get the faster they fly! I knew I was “over the hill” when the days picked up speed as I began the downhill run, and the momentum just increases every year. It seems like just yesterday I was worried about spelling tests and arithmetic exams and now the tests are called “stress tests” and the exams are called “colonoscopies.”

2018 held many surprises for me personally, some joyous and others sorrowful. (I begin 2019 with one less sibling as I lost my little brother in October. Once we were 6, now we are but 4.) But the year started off on a happy note with the arrival of Orv and Willa on January 1st. They spent the winter along the Great Miami River downtown.

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and perched high in the trees nearby.

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By the end of January they were building a home in Carillon Park.

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And then by June they were feeding eaglets!

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July held the brief and tragic story of beautiful Flyer, a story of promise as Flyer took that first leap of faith…

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and then spent 5 wonderful days in the trees and on the rooftops of Carillon…

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before tragedy struck. Some moments of 2018 seem shockingly brief.

And then there is the ongoing story of our young adult eagles, Orv and Willa, currently strengthening their bond of mutual devotion to each other.

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The discovery of the West Carrollton nest and the continued success of Eastwood’s Jim and Hope have added much to the vanishing year.  Now that the leaves are no longer hiding Jim and Hope’s current nest, Roger was recently able to capture a distant image of Hope evaluating their housing needs for the new year.

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But some of the greatest surprises and unforeseen blessings of 2018 were the new friendships kindled on the levees and within the park. New friends with a common admiration and wonder, bonded together by shared loss and by growing expectation of what secrets may lie in the future, concealed in the pages of a new calendar.

The story, your story, continues. Each year is a chapter, each month a paragraph and every moment a sentence that holds mysterious wonders and possibilities that will unfold with time. Few things are as precious as time. We must be ready to make the most of it all, to invest every second wisely in the lives of those we meet, those we love. There is no commodity more priceless, more fragile or more precious than time. Look! Quick! Oh, no! It’s gone! Time moves on at the speed of life.

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Happy new year!

Published in: on December 31, 2018 at 4:37 am  Leave a Comment