Eagle reality show returns

Photo courtesy USFWSA bald eagle pair is joined by an outcast mate to cooperatively build a new nest.

Television reality shows are entertaining but are overly dramatic and usually don’t depict real life stories. In nature, there are no scripts or dramatic actors. A live streaming Internet webcam is once again featuring the real life ventures of a local bald eagle pair. This reality series began 13 years ago and has exposed hidden secrets of eagle biology.

This story began in 2004 when a pair of bald eagles nested at Lock and Dam 13 in Fulton, Illinois. The nest tree was located adjacent the public entrance road making it close to human presence and readily observable. Nearby, hundreds of bald eagles congregate during the winter to dine on the sushi buffet that floats in the dam’s tailwaters.

The first three years of nesting was devastating. In 2004 and 2005, the nest and eggs were destroyed by high winds. Eggs were again laid in 2006 and incubation was underway. One of the pair flew into an electrical power line and was killed causing the despondent mate to abandon the nest and eggs.

The next four years of nesting unveiled success with a new mate. Two eaglets fledged in 2007 and three fledged in 2008. A single eaglet fledged in 2009 but flew into a power line and was killed. 2010 heralded success as three chicks fledged.

In 2011, the first webcam was installed at the nest through partnership of the Stewards of Upper Mississippi River Refuge and the Corps of Engineers. Catastrophic events changed the lives of this eagle pair. The seven year old nest had incurred significant wind damage. The pair relocated and built a new nest, laid eggs, but then abandoned the nest. Wind toppled the new nest tree shortly after abandonment.

Tragedy followed the pair in 2012. They returned to a former nest tree and laid two eggs. The male would not incubate the eggs nor would he feed the female while she incubated. The male was dysfunctional in carrying out family duties.

The incubating female had to leave the nest to feed. Snow covered the eggs for hours. Both eggs surprisingly hatched but tragedy again reigned. At four days old, both chicks toppled off the edge of the shallow nest and died.

2013 revealed an intriguing dilemma. The adult female replaced the dysfunctional male with a new mate but the old mate decided to hang around. A new nest location was chosen that was too far away for the webcam to spy on them. The proud new parents fledged two eaglets while the outcast male sat nearby and watched with envy.

Heavy vegetation surrounded the nest in 2014 and prevented observers from determining if young were fledged. However, the pair and outcast mate were present during the entire nesting season. Three eaglets fledged in 2015 and the outcast continued his presence near the nest.

The 2016 bald eagle nesting season is underway. After three years of guessing where the next eagle’s nest would be located for placement of the webcam, success was finally achieved. The live streaming webcam can be viewed at www.stewardsumrr.org thanks again to the partnership of the Stewards and the Corps.

This year’s drama is anticipated. The outcast mate has joined the pair in nest building activities. Jabs are exchanged between the two males but each day the nest grows bigger through cooperation.

A pair of great horned owls has been checking out the eagle’s nest. These owls are gangsters in the avian world and notorious for bullying and killing other predatory birds and young. These silent marauders attack in the middle of the night. If the owls decide the nest is in a prime location, they will harass the eagle pair until they abandon the nest. Tune into the webcam for continuing drama.

Ed Britton is a wildlife refuge manager on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and a volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.