Eagle Update, June 21, 2020

Note:  The two photos in the story are by Ted Jurkuta who came out on the Discovery Barge II a few days after this story happened. The two offspring are perched on the same sycamore in the story below. The female is on the left and male on the right. Size here tells the story as females are larger than male eagles.  The image of the new fledgling flying, is the female. Look for more info on these eagles in the next post!!

The river’s ecosystem is amazing and offers surprises at every turn. On rare occasions, a powerful gift comes along, and this is a story of one of those gifts. This past Sunday, heading out on Father’s Day was extra special as thoughts of fishing trips with my Dad filled my head. I settled into the Discovery Barge II, backed her out of the slip and began a morning of discovery with a good friend Frank and his family. We were golden, like the morning light. For one father, his persistence and dedication delivered us that special gift … an unexpected event that gave me goosebumps on and off for twenty-five minutes as I slowly comprehended what surely was a gift from the river gods.

The wildlife was active and life filled the air, water and shorelines. The fog was heavy, but not too much so as we made our way slowly downriver. Eventually we were greeted by eagles and something I didn’t think possible.

Based on logical observations and activity of the resident bald eagles breeding season over the last two months, I would have bet money all of the eaglets had fledged as of June 6. Being in my eleventh year watching the eagles of Jefferson’s Reach, I “again” realized that every season is a learning season. Five years ago, I would have said, “The end of May and the first two weeks of June are when the eaglets fledge, (fly from the nest for the first time).” Over the past couple of years, things have changed a bit and I have to amend that statement to say, “The eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach fledge between May 10 and into the first two weeks in June.” This year, new resident eagles Henry & Duchess fledged two eagles, the first, Lorna on May 10 and Mondo (her sibling) fledged a few days later. Lorna fledged eleven days earlier than any I had previously seen over the eleven years. Last year, Barb & Treble, another new resident pair fledged an eaglet on or just before May 20. At the time, this was the earliest fledgling by one day … Virginia & James had a fledgling on May 21 about four years ago. At that time, it was the earliest by a week. 

For the first seven years of eagle watching in Jefferson’s Reach there were five pair in six miles and today, three and a half years later, there are eight pair. Henry & Duchess are resident pair #8 (most recent: arrived in January 2019). Barb & Treble are resident pair #7, (arrived in October 2016). The sixth pair of resident eagles, Dark Beak & Merry, are a story in themselves.  Dark Beak has been here the entire time, somehow maintaining his territory without a mate until Merry, who came in last Fall, became his mate. They built a nest this year, and seemed to be making headway towards a successful breeding season, but their nest fell. Maybe next year.

Getting back to the unexpected event … we cruised out of the slip and into the unknown. Looking at great blue heron in the fog, and listening to cardinals, prothonotary warblers and yellow billed cuckoos kept us busy when suddenly Bandit appeared out of nowhere. She flew out of the fog and perched nearby. About five minutes into talking about her storied history, a juvenile eagle flew out from the tree line nearby, about 150 yards away. This young bird flew over the river and tree line on the other side directly towards Bandit’s nest … “Bandit is going to call out and send that intruder a warning call!” I said but she did not call out …  and for a brief moment I thought, “Perhaps that’s her fledgling?” and the next thought was, “No way, can’t be.” Bandit had not been making trips to her nest, a vital activity to keep eaglets fed, healthy and alive. Observing her actions over the past two months became increasing difficult to determine whether or not she had success with breeding. It was clear early on that she had activity at the nest, but this activity slowed to a crawl and she literally did not go to the nest but twice over the past four trips to see her. Those couple of trips to the nest were just enough to keep my hopes alive that she had eaglets still. During the last observation, on June 6, she did not go to the nest and I had resolved that her breeding season was a failure. Interestingly, I had also noted the absence of her mate, Trey, over the past month … another oddity.

About ten minutes into our encounter with Bandit, her mate, Trey flew in from the deep fog just south of us. He flew to his favorite sycamore tree and perched. As I was explaining to Frank and his family about Trey and his recent absence, something happened. From a distance, we heard the unmistakable screeching of fledgling eagles.  “NO WAY” I thought and spun my head back towards Trey and saw two eaglets fly towards him and landed near him (Dad) on this Father’s Day. The larger fledgling (probably female) landed just below Trey and her sibling, a smaller eagle (probably male) landed just to the side of Trey. The screeched and called as they perched magnificently in that sycamore. 

I was processing what was happening and just couldn’t believe what was happening … Bandit & Trey had a successful breeding season, and they have two chicks!! What a roller coaster ride thinking the ‘success’ then ‘failure’. Goosebumps were at 100%!! Just goes to show … as much as I think I’m reading what’s happening out there, time is what really tells the story and all you can do is make a best guess along the way and continue to learn from every observation. It was a top five moment for me on the river to see those two eagles fledge. Quite honestly, Bandit was right on par for the timing of fledging eaglets … the middle of June.  Wow.

What also makes sense is that Trey was missing. He was surely at or near the nest most of the time, which is out of sight from the river. His presence at the nest perhaps gave Bandit more freedoms from the nest, but both parents share that workload. The first successful breeding season she had was with Trey in her sixth breeding season. Trey did all of the work … incubating, feeding, etc. There was not one observation or photo of Bandit with her first offspring. She just didn’t have anything to do with it. Two years later (three years ago) during her second successful breeding season, she was at or on the nest quite often, feeding and incubating. She progressed as a parent between her first and second successful breeding seasons. Naturally, I thought she would have progressed more during this third successful breeding season, but that did not seem to be the case, hence my assumption that she had a failed breeding season. Boy was I wrong, and am so glad!