Exploring Bald Eagle Nests in The Last Green Valley
For several years now I have hiked a little used trail that winds along the banks of a tributary to the Quinebaug River. The river twists through a heavy canopy of trees and can be 30 or more feet from bank to bank. Every year between early March and early July I walk this trail. In March the river moves swiftly in riffling water that sparkles in the morning sunlight, but by July it has slowed to a shallow meandering stream. The start of my walk goes along the river bank for a few hundred feet and then shifts away on a diagonal slope uphill to the top of a ridge. From there the trail follows some 25 feet above the water with wonderful views of the river below. But I don’t go there to look at the river; I am there to return again to a specific viewing spot.
Since 2013 I have walked this river trail to check in on one of my favorite families of bald eagles who reside along the river in the upper branches of a tall white pine tree. My task is to view and report on the breeding and nesting activities of the eagles and specifically to record the number of fledglings from the nest. While I have enjoyed our visits, I readily admit they don’t really seem to appreciate my company but do tolerate my brief presence.
Over the years I have come to know practically every step of the trail to the eagle nest. For several hundred feet along the top of the ridge the trail all but disappears in a thick growth of shrubs and vines. Eventually the brush thins out and with the river below to my left I slowly approach the end of the ridge where the river makes a sharp 180-degree bend. I stop next to a large oak tree to get my bearings and from my backpack remove binoculars and spotting scope. I leave my backpack beside the tree and slowly walk along the ridge line until the river is visible to my right before it bends around the ridge in a sharp turn to my left. About 350 feet away is the tall white pine tree with the bald eagle nest. It is about six feet in circumference and secured at the bottom with 2-3-foot-long dead branches placed onto horizontal living branches of the tree and then smaller branches to the top. Three feet or more in depth, the nest tapers downward in a conical shape. I first use my binoculars to see if anyone is home, then setup the tripod and spotting scope for a better look.
In early March the foliage of the ridgetop deciduous trees has yet to emerge, so my view of the nest is mostly unobstructed, and with my scope I can focus directly on the rim of the nest. From where I stand the nest is about 30 feet above my line of sight. If I was at a lower river bank level it would be almost impossible to view the rim of the nest.
Every year I make this trip to confirm the nest is occupied, if the female has laid eggs, if the eggs have hatched, how many chicks hatched and to confirm how many chicks have survived to take flight and fledge. After the young bald eagles have left the nest I may come back once or twice to see if they are still in the area, but basically my task for the year is over in July. I keep in regular contact with CT DEEP Wildlife Biologist Brian Hess to report progress with the chicks and confirm the number of fledglings.
In early March my time on that ridge can be an hour or more. If eagles are at the nest but not going into the nest and settling down, then I can’t confirm eggs have been laid. Sometimes there are no eagles visible, so my task is to keep that spotting scope focused on the rim of the nest in hopes of seeing an eagle get up, shift in the nest and settle back down. When I see this behavior more than likely the eagle is incubating eggs. That is confirmed for me if a mate flies in and they switch places in the nest.
Later in March and early April as I approach the viewing spot, I hope to see the white head of one of the eagles (usually the female) visible above the rim of the nest. That tells me at least one egg has hatched and she is brooding the chick. I hope to see the mate fly in with a fish clutched in its talons and with its mate tear its flesh into bite-size pieces. Then I know a small white hungry “fuzz ball” chick is being fed.
At this stage in the chick’s development at least one of the adult eagles is in the nest or roosting very close by. This is also when, usually within 30 minutes or so of my arrival, one of the eagles will focus their yellow eyes directly at me, and with a look of mild disdain seem to be thinking “oh no, look who’s back again.” That is when I know it is time to go. I have seen what I need to make a report to CT DEEP, so I pick up the scope and slowly walk back to the oak tree, pack up and retrace my steps along the trail, down the slopping ridge to the river and back to my truck.
The most exciting time to visit is in May when the chicks are large enough to see above the rim of the nest. I may see movement in the nest with the dark back or wing of a bird, when suddenly up pops the head of a young eaglet. Under my breath I’ll say “yes” we have a chick, and hopefully I’ll see more movement and a second little head.
By June the viewing spot to the nest is mostly obscured by leaves of the trees between my location and the nest tree. I’ll slowly traverse the ridge keeping the nest in front of me until I find a large enough opening in the canopy for my binoculars. By now the chicks are large, almost the size of the adults and clearly visible in the nest. Sometimes they are making a racket, especially if an adult is nearby with food. I’ll confirm the number of chicks at this stage and look for any activity such as flapping of wings and hopping about from branch to branch that indicates they are getting ready to follow their parents in flight.
This year there had been two chicks in the nest, but on June 23rd I returned to find it empty. My sightline to the tree was mostly obscured so I moved along the ridge top scanning with my binoculars above the nest. Sure enough, there was a chick roosting in the upper branches, so I knew at least one had fledged. Where the second chick was I didn’t know. I was packing up my gear when I heard, or more felt movement in the tall pine tree directly above me. With the rush of wings I saw an eagle flying above the tree tops. I moved along the ridge trying to focus through the tree canopy on the bird above the trees. I needed to confirm if it was an adult or the second fledgling. Finally, it came into full view and yes – it was the second fledgling from the nest, now also flying on its own. I am happy to report two newly minted bald eagles have taken flight in 2020 from this nest.
In 2019, CT DEEP reported 64 bald eagle territories with nests that produced 82 fledglings. This is up from only 19 territories in 2009 – a huge increase. Since I started monitoring the nest in 2013, I have witnessed 10 bald eagle chicks grow to take flight. Today we know of eight active bald eagle nests within the 35 towns comprising The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. This year three of the nests failed to produce a chick but the other 5 fledged a total of 11 chicks with one of the nests fledging three – a first for our region as far as I know. Each nest has a volunteer monitor who keeps track of it during the early March to mid-July nesting season. This work is hugely rewarding and important to understanding the return of eagles to our region.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. We are fortunate to share our home with an increasing population of our national symbol – the amazing bald eagle.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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