Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 25, 2013

Ed Hungness: Leaving the nest is risky for some

BY ED HUNGNESS
Local columnist

---- — During the last week of April, our resident pair of Bald Eagles was blessed with two baby eaglets.

Perched high atop a nearby towering white pine sits their nest. About six feet in diameter, it is occupied each spring and summer and has been for years. Unlike smaller birds, the nest is built to last and is constructed of sticks and branches in order to withstand high winds which could topple it from the lofty perch. Each year, in the early spring, they repair and add to their dwelling.

We believe that the same pair of adult eagles occupy the nest from year to year. Bald Eagles mate for life and it is not uncommon for one to live for 30 years in the wild. If one of the pair dies, the other will frequently find a new mate.

On May 5 I looked though a tri-pod mounted spotting scope which is permanently set up in our living area and focused on the nest. I detected movement and saw both adults perched on the outer edge. One was busy ripping apart either a fish or small rodent for the two gray fuzz balls who were eager to be fed.

I could see their weeks-old heads poking above the sides of the nest with mouths wide open, begging for their dinner.

As the days and weeks passed there was constant activity at the nest. For the most part, the mother is a stay-at-home mom and dad goes out to “bring home the bacon.”

Occasionally, like many females, she feels the urge to “get out of the house and go shopping.” At that point, there is a role reversal and dad stays home with the kids while she flies away to seek food for the young ones. At all times, one of the adults is on the nest to protect the new family.

Young eagles grow rapidly and add approximately a pound per week to their body weight. Three weeks after hatching, they are about one foot in height. In four to five weeks they can tear up their own food thus feeding themselves.

In six weeks the eaglets are almost as large as their parents and their dark juvenile feathers begin to grow in replacing their fuzzy down. At eight weeks, the young daredevils venture to the edge of the nest to stretch and exercise their wings, hoping to catch a gust of wind which occasionally lifts them off their feet.

At about 10 weeks, the young are tempted to make their first flight. With our family of eagles, this occurred on July 13, a day that will be long remembered in our neck of the woods.

The excitement began when one of the eaglets decided it was ready to venture out of the nest. It did fly, but the flight was of short duration and the youngster landed in the lake. Its wings too weak, it flopped around in the water unable to take off.

Eventually the young aviator struggled to a sandbar and found safety on a small tuft of dry ground. There it rested and sunned itself until its feathers dried.

With renewed confidence, the grounded eaglet began its second flight. This time it headed toward our shore but again sputtered out and plopped back into the lake.

There was no dry ground close at hand and the young eagle’s future looked dim. Our next-door neighbor, Jim, sprang into action along with several young visitors who launched a canoe and two kayaks.

Slowly approaching the floundering eagle, one of the young men extended his paddle toward the bird. Surprisingly, the eagle accepted his invitation and grabbed on. The brave lad slowly swung his paddle over the nose of the kayak and the eagle hopped aboard.

There it perched, like a hood ornament, as the rescuer paddled toward the shore of the nest location. Once there, he nosed the kayak next to a log and the eagle hopped off.

Later that day, on a third attempt at flight, the eagle made it back to the safety of the nest, probably tired and glad to be home.

Both young eagles have now departed the nest, and can occasionally be seen flying in the area. I’m sure their parents are proud and possibly grateful for the helping human hand.

Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at edhungness@yahoo.com or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633