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.


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.


(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  

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