Just Beyond Tomorrow

Jim arrives for incubation duty.

Jim arrives for incubation duty.

Cindy departs.

Cindy departs.

Cindy assumes her guard post.

Cindy assumes her guard post.

Like clockwork. Like a well-oiled machine. Over and over again for the past four weeks the choreography has been flawless and the performance has been perfect. Jim and Cindy have executed the routine like well trained soldiers, carrying out each movement with crisp precision and grace. We have come to expect nothing less. People around the world have been able to witness this spectacle live on their computer screens. We fondly call it, “The Changing of the Guard.”

How do they know when it is time for another change? How do they communicate the need for the switch? How are they always seemingly aware of the other’s location? There are so many questions to which I have no answers, but somehow they do. Simple and frequent observations have taught us a few things though and now we often know that the switch is coming even before it begins. The first sign is that the eagle incubating the eggs will fidget and stir as if it is getting restless. Then its mate will soon be spotted flying rather low towards the nesting tree. As it approaches it rises to an altitude just a few feet higher than the nest and makes a slow, wide circle around the tree before dropping low and then swooping up to gently land on the rim of the nest. Then there is a momentary interlude of little if any motion in which we imagine a short conversation transpires, a debriefing of sorts. After no more than a minute or two, the incubating eagle cautiously rises, walks immediately to the edge of the nest and takes flight. The remaining eagle then approaches the clutch of eggs and gently leans forward to inspect each one as it tenderly rolls it just a bit with the side of its potentially deadly beak. After the inspection the adult Bald Eagle protectively curls its sharp, black talons up against the bottom of its bright yellow feet, as if to make two fists, and proceeds to walk on its knuckles as it carefully settles down to incubate the clutch. Once seated the eagle may use its beak to slide grass, moss and other greenery up against its body to seal the eggs from drafts. The entire process takes less than five minutes.

The adult eagle who has left the nest will possibly stretch its wings for a time and hunt some food before flying to one of the many guard posts near the nesting tree. There it will perch and watch for any possible threat to the safety of the eggs in the aerie. Then the stillness returns, perhaps for hours, until the silent signal sounds and The Changing of the Guard begins anew.

We are entering the final week of incubation. By now the eagles are chatting to the yet unseen eaglets in the eggs and are sensing a little movement beneath them. Inside the shells the eaglets are beginning to hear Jim and Cindy’s voices and are experiencing the first stages of bonding with their parents. The space in the egg is becoming quite cramped as the eaglet grows a little larger each day. The top of its large, black beak will sport a single projection called an egg tooth. Soon it will tear through the membrane that surrounds it inside of the egg and take its first real breath from the small bubble of air waiting trapped between the membrane and the shell. Then it will use its egg tooth to pierce a tiny hole in the fragile shell of its egg in a process known as pipping. Next, the little eaglet will face one of the most important and crucial struggles of its new life. Over a period of up to 48 hours it will toil and rest, toil and rest, until it frees itself from its prison. Mom and Dad will call to it and visually check its progress but will not help it in its struggle. Life in the wild is wild and fraught with challenges. This is a task that it must complete on its own to survive. When it does finally free itself, the tiny hatchling will be a wet, limp, scrawny bit of bright pink skin covered with grayish white down. The eaglet will weigh less than 3 1/4 ounces and it will be totally exhausted. It may rest for 24 hours under the protective warmth of Jim or Cindy’s feathers before it is able to lift its way-too-heavy beak to feed. Then over the next several days it may be joined by one, two or possibly, but rarely, three siblings. Overexposure to the elements means certain death for each of the little hatchlings. Unable to regulate their own body temperature for around 10 days, they are totally reliant on their parents for warmth, food and protection.

We cannot see the eggs or the nest’s floor but we will be able to document changes in the behavior of the adult birds that will indicate what is happening in the unseen depths of the aerie. First there will be several days of little or no activity as Jim and Cindy conserve energy for the approaching ordeal of feeding the eaglets. As the hatching draws near the eagle in the nest, most likely Cindy, will stay there and Jim will bring her fish and ducks to eat. He may even be seen shredding the prey and feeding the pieces to his mate. Then there will be much more fidgeting of the incubating adult. It has always reminded me of an expectant human mother who just can’t seem to find a comfortable position and when she finally does, the baby moves and the comfort flees. There will be more frequent inspections of the clutch of eggs. In the last two years I have noted that with the pipping and hatching, both eagles will be in the nest like proud new parents at the hospital nursery window. Jim may actually pace the rim of the nest reminiscent of a new father in the waiting room. But the most obvious sign will occur when the first hatchling recovers from its exhaustion and realizes that it is hungry. It will be constantly and consistently hungry for several weeks. One adult will leave the nest, return soon with a fish and will be clearly seen shredding it and feeding small pieces to the ravished eaglet. The more eaglets, the more feeding. Jim and Cindy’s plumage will become soiled, ragged and worn due to the stress and demands of parenting their young family. A single adult trying to feed a large brood of hungry eaglets can potentially work itself to death. This is why wildlife officials are sometimes forced remove eaglets from a nest and nurture them elsewhere to spare the life of a single surviving adult eagle.

The new arrivals will grow rapidly. In just 8 weeks they will be as large as their parents and in 70 days they will be fully feathered and capable of flying. The first flight from the nest, an event refered to as fledging, will take place from 70 to 92 days after hatching. Jim and Cindy’s past 5 eaglets have all fledged from 80 to 88 days. This first flight will be another great milestone for each youngster with potentially tragic results. Fledging has proven to be fatal to many young eaglets. At that point the nest will become just a gathering place for a few weeks until it is forgotten for another year.

I will share more on these stages as the 2013 eaglets progress. If you are a not yet a follower of our blog, I would like to encourage you to click the blue “Sign me up” button on the right, near the top of this page, and enter your email address. You will then receive an email notifying you of each new posting so you do not miss any of the action.

The 35-day period of incubation is drawing to a close. New life and new adventures are waiting for us all, carried on majestic eagle wings, just beyond tomorrow.

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Published in: on March 13, 2013 at 4:44 am  Comments (12)  

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. That was about the best description I have heard of the wonders of the Eagle’s life on the nest thank you for such great coverage of Cindy & Jim’s soon to be family.

  2. Thank you Jannice. There are no words that can truly convey the beauty and wonder that I find in these awe-inspiring creatures. Even the pictures fail to capture it all, but it is an amazing blessng to witness their story as it unfolds and a great privilege to be able to share it with others.

  3. Thanks to you and Roger for bringing to life this wonderful event in pictures and words. Great information.

  4. You are welcome Gary. This story has so many interlaced fingers. Each seemingly isolated change affects so many different things. Much of it is unseen while it is happening all around us. We have met parents that read our blog with their children so that the family is being educated together. We enjoy bringing people the rest of the story.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyable and I love to read things I did not know about, like the black talons being retracted and that the bird walks on its knuckles. I dread the loss of any of these little [for awhile] babies after months of observing as you wrote fledgling often resulting in tragic results. Is this due to predators, not just ‘accidents’ into a car or some other inability to survive? I know the parents teach them to fish, hunt. I was surprised to read they do not assist the eaglets out of the shell. Well, I know more information will come from these excellent writings we all look forward to, and learning together with followers of your Blog. The photographs are simply priceless. Again, thanks to you and Roger.

  6. Thanks again Clondres for following Jim and Cindy with us. They curl their talons to protect the egg from accidental piercing. The back claw is called a hallux and may be as long as 3 inches! They appear to waddle as they knuckle-walk over the egg. The challenges at fledging are many. First there is that 60′ drop. Young eagles are inexperienced fliers and the first flights are a bit wobbly. Once they are airborne, they must land. They have no idea that smaller twigs and branches cannot support 13 pounds of eagle. Also with that 7′ wingspan and hollow bones, impacting a tree and breaking something is a real possibility. A eagle is a big bird and if the novice flier should hit the ground, get tangled in the underbrush or simply not be able to get itself off the ground, it is prey to animals, parasites, diseases and starvation. Mom and Dad will bring it food but unless it can fly it is doomed. Cars usually become more of a threat as they get a little older and spot a tasty chunk of roadkill somewhere.

  7. I’m anxiously awaiting the arrivals of these beautiful birds !! Can’t wait !!

  8. I love the title of this post! When you write, I think we all can feel your passion for Jim and Cindy! You are educating so many people about our countries symbol and we can relate to the fact that they reside so close to us!! Thank you to Roger for the photos and to you eaglejim for all your knowledge and passion. Polly.

  9. We don’t have long to wait now Opal!

  10. Thank you Polly. If people are sensing our passion and being educated then we are meeting our goal. As stated on our home page, sharing the thrills of Jim and Cindy and helping people of all ages learn more about Bald Eagles were two of the stated objectives when I cofounded the Eastwood Eagle Watchers with Jim Wilson and Robyn Fell some 5 years ago. Of course promoting Jim and Cindy is like promoting ice cream on a hot summer day. It is a pretty easy job and a whole lot of fun!

  11. Thanks for your informative post, Jim. It is always a treat to read your blog and view the camera, getting a glimpse of the couple tending to their nest.

  12. Thank you Peggy. I’m ready to see some eaglets in that camera.


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