A Gift from the Skies
Photographs and Article by Spencer MooreI have done a lot of traveling in an attempt to photograph eagles from Alaska to Washington to Canada to national parks. However, I never expected to have an opportunity to make images of a nesting pair of bald eagles fifteen minutes from my home in Waco, Texas. Not only was I blessed with such a wonderful occurrence, but also during the spring of 2009 I had the pleasure of sharing this incredible experience with my good friend, Brian Boyd. During those months we logged over 100 miles of hiking which turned out to be advantageous to my health as well as an experience yielding many new images for my files.
There have been several pairs of nesting eagles around Texas for several years so we knew they would probably start sitting on their eggs between mid-January and early March. Sure enough they started their 24/7 vigil on February 15.
As Brian and I started our photographic documentation of them we noticed the eagles became more and more comfortable with the consistency of our routine in the area. Similar schedules made it possible for Brian and me to make almost all of the photographic trips together. We would proceed in the same way every time, wear the same camouflage clothing and set up our chairs and equipment identical to previous visits. The birds began to realize that we were of no significance since nothing ever happened as we came and went. They watched us arrive and in less than a moment they would go about their usual routine. We even saw them mate three times.
After we were set up we could always tell when other people came into the area by the eagles’ reactions. It would sometimes be ten to fifteen minutes before we would see the people, but the eagles noticed them earlier due to their keen eyesight and the high vantage point of the nest. A couple of times Brian or I would not be available so one of us would walk in alone. The eagles obviously did not recognize who we were until we set up in our routine spot. Then they would go on about their business as normal. As the seasons changed so did our clothing, which got different reactions from the eagles. Hats made the most difference, but the second time in the same hat would be accepted as normal to them.
On February 15 there was a sudden change in their reaction when they began 24/7 incubation. At that point they seemed to be less concerned about people and more concerned about other birds entering the area. Osprey, hawks, buzzards, egrets, and great blue herons became the focal point of their concern, which resulted in vocal attacks and mid-air confrontations.
We found it curiously interesting that the opening and closing of the eagles’ mouths in response to intruders was identical to the opening and closing of their mouths when greeting each other. They often vocalized the same sounds to each other as well as to intruders. We were never able to differentiate those actions between intruders and themselves, but we decided that if you are an eagle you obviously understand.
When only one eagle was on the nest we would observe the mouth opening and chirping which signaled that either an intruder was coming or the mate was arriving.
If the male was on nest duty often times we knew the female was coming in from a distance because all of a sudden he would leave. Within a few seconds she would fly in and take up her post on the nest. When the female was on the nest the male would land in a tree nearby. Se would leave the nest fly and sit next to him, greeting him physically. Often they would make gestures with their mouths to each other, occasionally toughing beaks with open mouths—seemingly kissing. Occasionally the male would jump on her back and give her a gentle nudge for two to three seconds, then move back to the branch. Their display of affection was impressive. Shortly thereafter the female would fly off and the male would take the position on the nest, never leaving the eggs unattended for more than a couple of minutes.
Half way through the incubation process the male would occasionally fly into the nest area with a branch or some other type of debris, seemingly as a gift or a duty. However, we never witnessed it actually being put to use. It was typically dropped as he landed at the nest tree.
At 42 days everything drastically changed again so we assumed we had a successful 35-day hatching and a second hatching seven days later. Our first glimpse of a baby was at three weeks. From that point on we saw only one chick. Research has found the second chick probably would not make it and that was the case here in Waco. The nesting tree now took on a much larger no-fly zone and all flying intruders were quickly dispatched.
We occasionally saw one of the adults tearing off small pieces of meat and giving it to the chick. It was at about five weeks when we found the chick tearing its own food. At that point the adults would bring a fresh catch in and then promptly leave the nest and sit in a nearby tree and stand guard from there. The chick would periodically eat a small amount and rest and after a couple of hours eat a little more. Freshness didn’t seem to be an issue, but nothing appeared to last more than half a day. There was usually a morning food run and a late food run as well.
It was at exactly 10 weeks when the juvenile began to test his wings, as light gusts of wind would rise up. It was also about that time that we decided we could make a gender call because the young bird seemed to be fully mature. The beak was thinner shaped, more like the male’s beak, rather than the thicker bill of the female.
At or near 12 weeks the adults began to leave the area for long lengths of time. We assumed that the juvenile was, in their estimation, capable of taking care of himself since in many cases other juveniles had already taken their first flight.
We also surmised that juveniles don’t take their first flight from choice but rather by accident. Starting at the 10-week mark is when he started playing with those massive wings, but for the following three weeks the weather in Waco remained relatively steady and we never had any real windy days. No storms came through and it was calm time weather wise. When the wind did pick up some speed, the young bird would quickly begin to play with the breezes by jumping increasingly higher in the nest and flapping his wings but always being careful to make his flights very controlled and vertical to the confines of the nest area. There were also many times when he would soar for a couple of minutes but always being sure not to release the death grip he maintained on the nest’s edge. It was humorous to watch his cautious play during those three weeks.
Our schedules of work and travel prevented us from witnessing his first flight, but friends told us of seeing him off the nest during the week that we were gone. When I returned he was already moving from limb to limb and to the nearby trees. Shortly after that he was off and all around the lake staying within about a mile radius of the nesting area.
For me this was a gift from the skies.