Aerial photo taken after a logging operation along the Rappahannock River cut an eagle nest tree. This forest block supported a bald eagle nest for ten years prior to the harvest. Photo by Bryan Watts. (linked from The Center for Conservation Biology)
The Internet is captivated by the Hays bald eagle family nesting on a wooded hillside in Pittsburgh. Their nest is protected by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and worldwide media attention, but what happens to nests that aren’t so famous? Here’s the story of an unexpected consequence of removing bald eagles from the federal endangered list.
For 40 years bald eagles were completely protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and everyone understood not to harm them. By 2007 the birds made such a great recovery that they were removed from the federal ESA listing. Fortunately they are still protected by a law of their own, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act that protects eagles, their eggs and their nests.
The Center For Conservation Biology (CCB) in Williamsburg, Virginia monitors bald eagle nests in the Chesapeake Bay area where 75% of the nests are on private land. Each spring they fly over the watershed twice: once to count occupied nests, later to count chicks. Last month CCB reported what they’ve found after 6+ years without ESA protection: a real increase in the number of eagle nest trees cut down.
Bald eagles use same the nest for many years so when CCB flies over the area in early March, they look for known as well as new nests. Increasingly they find former nest trees are gone, cut down when an area is wiped out by a large logging operation like the one above.
Private landowners apparently don’t realize the Eagle Act protects the nest, so the well-publicized de-listing of the bald eagle has lead to an unintended consequence: disregard for the eagles’ habitat and nest trees. CCB points out that education of landowners is sorely needed.
There he is, the first eaglet of 2014 at the Pittsburgh Hays bald eagle nest. He’s hard to see because he matches the nest, hence the arrow. The two remaining eggs and his discarded eggshell (closest to Dad’s beak) stand out.
This tiny gray ball of fluff emerged on a warm and windy afternoon, March 28, under his mother’s gaze. As soon as he was dry she brooded him until Dad returned with food.
Click on the snapshot above to watch “Hays Parents Celebrate Hatch.” Dad has brought a fish to share. While Mom eats, Dad studies the eaglet. “Is he hungry?” Not yet, so Dad rearranges the nest. Mom leaves on a well-deserved break and Dad settles down to brood the chick.
Bald eagles brood their nestlings during cold and inclement weather until they’re about four weeks old. In the first week the brooding is almost constant because the nestlings can’t regulate their own body temperature. This also serves the dual purpose of incubating the unhatched eggs while keeping the eaglet(s) warm.
The first eaglet of the season hatched today in the Pittsburgh’s Hays Bald Eagle nest at approximately 2:30pm. In this YouTube video captured by PixController you can see the baby bird next to two eggs and his own eggshell. Then mom comes over to help.
Festivities tomorrow! March 29, 9:00am to noon, watch the nest at Hays — in person!
National Aviary Ornithologist Bob Mulvihill will be at the Hays Bald Eagle nest site tomorrow morning from 9 a.m. until noon with the spotting scope donated by Wild Birds Unlimited! Feel free to stop by for a really good look at the nest, maybe even catch a glimpse at what’s going on IN the nest!
Parking is available courtesy of Keystone Iron and Metal Co. in their employee parking lot at the end of Baldwin Road (see map), or use the address 4901 East Carson Street into your GPS!
The viewing site is a short distance from there: carefully cross the railroad tracks and turn left onto the trail. Bob will be about 200 feet down the trail with the spotting scope!
Click here for a map of how to get there.
Red-breasted mergansers already look a little crazy because of their wild head feathers. Here you see they’ve really gone nuts.
In this photo by Pat Gaines three male red-breasted mergansers are courting one female. The guys zip around and churn the water like jet skis, abruptly halt and point their bills skyward, dip their necks and crowd around her.
The lady doesn’t look like she wants this much attention. Pat wrote that she flew away pursued by all three males and concluded, “So this is what it must be like for a beautiful woman at a singles bar.”
Click on the photo for a closeup and here for a video of their courtship behavior.
(photo by Pat Gaines on Flickr, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)
p.s. Notice how the feathers around the female’s eye form a dark circle. It looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks.
The males pump their heads, raise their crests, toss their heads forward as if to unfurl their hoods, and waggle their heads side to side. “Look at my white crest!”
They also throw their heads back and point their beaks to the sky. As they bring their heads upright they say “Merg-merrrrrg!” Listen to the video. They sound like frogs!
So why does the hooded merganser have a hood? Relentless female selection. The ladies are so impressed by a good head toss that they pick the guys with the biggest, whitest hoods. The guys with little hoods never have kids.
This month while the ducks are stalled in Pennsylvania waiting for northern lakes to thaw, they spend their time courting. Some species merely chase the ladies. Others have elaborate displays. My favorite is the common goldeneye who tosses his head so far back it looks as if he’ll hurt his neck.
In this video two male goldeneyes (blue-black iridescent heads with white face patches) show off for two females (brown heads). The males raise or lower their head feathers to make their heads look round or flat. When they toss their heads their feathers are raised and their heads look enormous. The gesture is not enough. They also make a rattling peent, “Look at me!”
If the lady likes what she sees she swims with head and neck outstretched as if she’s dipping her neck in the water. This suggests her posture during copulation so if course it keeps the action going.
“Do that again,” she says, “Toss your head for me.”
In this video of the egg’s first on-camera appearance notice the reactions of ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ eagle…
The video begins with the mother eagle standing over her egg, waiting for it to dry. Her tail is spread and she’s holding her wings open to shelter the egg without touching it.
When the egg is dry, she gently rolls it with her beak and keeps her talons folded in as she steps near the egg. She is very careful.
Just before her mate arrives you can hear his “whee” call announcing his arrival.
Notice how much bigger the female is than her mate. This size difference is normal in birds of prey.
Both eagle parents rearrange the sticks, mosses and grasses in the nest. If you watch peregrine falconcams you’ll notice that peregrines don’t use sticks so there’s nothing to adjust. Watch closely and you’ll see peregrines rearrange the rocks.
Though the eagles are nesting on an extensive wooded hillside above the Monongahela River, the river banks hosts two active railroad tracks and a scrapyard. That’s why you hear mechanical and industrial sounds on the camera.
You can watch the eaglecam at several websites. My two favorites are PixController and the National Aviary. Click on a logo below to watch the Pittsburgh eaglecam. PixController’s has a link to the video archives.
As you saw last weekend there are still crowds of bald eagles gathered along North America’s rivers waiting for winter to end. They can’t go home and begin courting until the ice breaks up.
Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s eagles have a head start on the nesting season because our rivers don’t freeze over. The pair at Hays has already progressed to the finer points of nest construction. They finished the foundation (large sticks) and the bowl (small sticks) and are now working on the nest lining (soft grasses). Sometimes they bring a fish and have a snack at the nest. When the lining is complete, egg-laying won’t be far away.
When you watch the Pittsburgh Hays eaglecam you’ll notice how different eagles’ habits are from peregrines’ behavior. Peregrines don’t “build” a nest, they never use sticks or soft grasses, and they almost never eat at the nest unless they have young in it. This difference is driven by their food and habitat needs: bald eagles eat fish and nest in trees near water, peregrines hunt birds on the wing and nest on cliff ledges.