Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… Eagles like other raptors (birds of prey) are normally solitary birds. However, during the next few weeks, you may have an opportunity to see or photograph both the female and male together on the same limb. Some of the raptors which include eagles, hawks, falcons, kestrels, and osprey are birds that primarily hunt and feed on live prey. The prey may include fish, mammals or other birds. Raptors have amazing eyesight, strong feet and talons, and powerful curved beaks. The larger female of each species will initiate courting and mating, permitting the smaller male to join her. Courting and mating take place in mid-January and continues throughout February and into March.
Eagles will generally use the same nest year after year. The largest recorded eagle nest was observed for more than thirty-five years. It was estimated to weigh nearly two tons when it finally fell to the ground. The average width of a nest may range from six to eight feet or more and the depth may be three to six feet deep. I was privileged to photograph and document a nesting pair of eagles a few years ago in a nearby town. The nesting pair had been using their nest for several years. I began viewing the nest in early April after the female had already laid eggs, but until they hatched I had no way of knowing how many eggs might be in the nest.
Both the female and male took turns incubating the eggs. Incubation may take thirty-four to thirty- six days. Each adult eagle while incubating will periodically turn the eggs and both have a brood patch to keep the eggs warm. A brood patch is an area on both the male and the female eagle’s “belly” where they pluck off their feathers so the bare skin, filled with blood vessels, will help to keep the eggs warm. The plucked feathers are used as insulating material within the nest. Their feathers will grow back once the eggs have hatched. Eagles generally lay one to three eggs during a period of one to three days apart. Both eagles take turns incubating immediately after the first egg is hatched. The eggs will hatch asynchronously (in the order that they were laid). It can take anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours for an egg to hatch once the piping (making a hole in the egg from inside) begins. Each bird has an “egg tooth” (a hard pointed protrusion on the beak) to break the first hole and to continue piping around the inside of the egg until it finally pushes its way out: within the first few days after hatching the egg tooth will fall off.
Once the eaglets hatched I learned that she had laid three eggs and all three eggs hatched successfully. The first week one of the adults stayed with hatchlings to protect them from the elements and predators, the other began hunting for food. Within a few weeks, the pale gray downy chicks had molted into a darker gray down and could be left alone in the nest while both adults hunted for food. Initially, both adults would take turns removing fecal sacs (the first excretions are in an enclosed sac) from the nest and after a week or so the tiny eaglets would hop to the sides of the nest with their backsides pointed outward and eliminate their bodily wastes over the side, as to not foul the nest. Each of the three was vying for the food as the adults returned to the nest. It was heartening to see that the adults were able to satisfy the needs of each. All three of the immature eaglets fledged the nest by late July.
It takes five years for an eagle to reach maturity. The immature will molt feathers each year evolving from dark brown mottled with white feathers; until finally maturing into the white head and tail feather and dark brown body of the adult. Unless the male and female are within close proximity it may be difficult to determine if it is a male or female. The female is about twenty-five percent larger than the male. Both have a yellow bill and cere (the fleshy area between the bill and face) and yellow eyes. Until the immature reaches its adult stage its bill, cere and eyes are brown.
The average female is thirty-five to thirty-seven inches tall while the male is thirty to thirty-four inches. The wingspan of the females varies from seventy-nine to ninety inches and the male wingspan is seventy-two to eighty-five inches. The female weighs about twelve pounds and the male about nine pounds. Even though they appear to weigh more the feathers are very light and the eagle’s bones are hollow. Their skeleton actually weighs less than all of their feathers combined. They may not be considered the fastest fliers of the raptor family, but their ability to glide and soar for hours is a bonus while hunting and uses considerably less energy.
The tree that housed the eagle nest, which I observed for several years, was an enormous white pine. It was a tree large enough to hold the eagle’s huge nest, but a late spring blizzard was its nemesis and tore the nest with newly laid eggs from the tree. It uprooted many trees in the area and the eagles without a nest were unable to have a brood that year. I have learned that they have rebuilt in a nearby tree, but it isn’t as effortlessly viewed from the new site.
I had the opportunity to photograph a tree this month that is actually blooming in the midst of cold and snow. Our native small tree or shrub is known as Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) and produces four narrow strappy yellow petals in winter. The tree is deer tolerant and may be a wonderful addition to a woodland garden. I have had several friends ask me questions about this early bloomer that led me to do some interesting research. It seems the common name witch hazel comes from Old English “wiche” or “wice” that translates to pliant or bendable and “haesel” means of the pine family. Another interesting question was how is it pollinated in winter? The answer was a pleasant surprise and came from scientist and author Bernd Heinrich. After considerable research, he discovered that several Moths of the Owlet Family, that winter over, are the pollinators. By shivering they are capable of rising their body temperature as much as fifty degrees, their quest for food leads them to the blossoms of witch hazel they are satiated and the blooms are pollinated.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com