Bald eagles often grace the sky above our garden as they drift and dive on the rivers of warm air flowing high above us. We see them in small groups of two or three circling and calling to one another. We can tell they are eagles when the sun glints off of their white heads and tails.
We enjoy the company of many large birds in our forest garden. Red tailed hawks nest nearby, and owls call to each other at night from trees all around us. We see Ospreys and Egrets, Great Blue Herons and Canadian Geese in the marshes, creeks, and rivers which surround us. But spotting an eagle is a special pleasure.
Bald eagles are native to North America. What a surprising and beautiful discovery for the early colonists who spotted them living in the trees and fishing in the James River and marshes around Jamestown island. Long sacred to the Native American people, who believed them to carry messages between men and the gods, Bald Eagles are the largest avian predator east of the Mississippi River. Native people use their feathers in their ritual clothing and tools, and always honor their presence in a place.
Eagles choose to live near large bodies of water, especially when nesting, because they eat mostly fish. Their eyes are nearly as large as human eyes, but many times sharper. They can see fish swimming near the surface, and dive out of the sky to catch fish in their talons, carrying the living fish back to their nest, or to a high perch, to eat. Although they eat small mammals, reptiles, and even small birds, they prefer fish. A mature eagle can lift and carry about 4 pounds of prey.
Eagle nests are built high in pine, cypress, or hardwood trees growing along the banks of fishing grounds. That is why we have an abundance of nests nearby. We are surrounded by water and national park land where they are left undisturbed.
Eagles build their nests from sticks, and simply repair and increase their nest year to year. They build the largest nests of any North American bird. The largest Bald Eagle nest found, in Florida, was over 12′ deep and over 8′ wide. Huge nests are needed to house the family because mature eagles are such large birds. They weigh between 6 and 14 lbs, with a length up to about 40″ and a wingspan of 6′-7.5′.
These nests are built near the tops of open, dead or dying trees, where the eagles have a clear view of the surrounding area. Mated for life, eagle couples command a territory around their nest where they raise their family each year. They work on repairing any damage to the nest and enlarging it during the deep winter, and begin laying their eggs in late February. Incubation of the eggs during February, March, and early April brings newly hatched chicks from mid-April to early May. The chicks must be protected and fed until they are ready to fledge in late June and early July.
Young eagles are covered in all brown feathers until they reach maturity at 4 to 5 years of age, when they are ready to mate and build new nests of their own. The distinctive white head and tail feathers grow only when the birds are mature. They generally return to the area where they were raised to begin their own family.
At one time, Bald Eagles were common throughout North America from Alaska to Northern Mexico. By the 1960s, their population was almost decimated, and they were placed on our Endangered Species list. By 1995 the population had increased to the point that eagles were considered only a threatened species, with many legal protections still in place. As of 2007 we had enough eagles living in North America that they were no longer considered threatened. Bald Eagles, as the National Bird and symbol of the United States still enjoy many legal protections. They are most numerous in Alaska and along the Northwest Coast of the United States around the Puget Sound and along the Rivers of Washington and Oregon; but we enjoy a large Bald Eagle population right here in coastal Virginia.
Eagles tend to grow larger the farther north they live. Bald Eagles living in Florida are measurably smaller than the ones living here, and our eagles are smaller than those living in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
It is common to see visitors with their cameras and tripods photographing eagles and their nests during the spring and summer along the Colonial Parkway. Although eagles migrate where their fishing grounds freeze, our eagles stay around during the winter. We don’t see them as often, but they are close by.
We were thrilled to spot a Bald Eagle perched on top of a dead tree along the Parkway yesterday. We were driving slowly, watching for birds, when my partner spotted her and pulled over. We took several photos through the open car window before the beautiful eagle flew off. We felt privileged to have been close enough to see her so clearly, and that she allowed us to take her photo before flying off in search of a more peaceful spot on this wintery day.
All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013