EagleCam Updates - 2015
Click image for the photo gallery:
June 20, 2015
The first fledgling first left the nest on June 4 with the second young first leaving the nest on June 10. However, both fledglings appear to be staying in the surrounding area to be fed by either parent both in or away from the nest. Note all the bleached fish bones that have collected over the last few weeks. The young can often be heard calling for food. The adults will continue to feed the fledglings for weeks, sometimes far from the nest with the Potomac River only a few hundred yards away.
The fledglings will soon develop the ability to obtain food on their own, including catching live fish and other prey, and consuming carrion. The fledgling period coincides well with the reproductive period of Canada geese and many mammals thus live prey and carrion is abundant. This year was a real challenge for adults and nestlings alike, including harsh winter weather, torrential rain and wind events, and nest competitors. Two of the three nestlings survived to fledging adding to the strong record of reproductive success at this location.
The two young are expected to disperse widely over the next few years, perhaps to returning to the area when they reach full breeding condition, with a fully white head and dark back, at about 5 years of age. Because none of the young are banded, we will never know if any immature eagles seen in the area over the next few years are the young from this nest or other nearby eagle nests on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.
June 5, 2015
It appears the oldest eagle nestling fledged either late on June 4 or early today. This is right on time as first flights usually occur around 10 weeks of age and the nestlings are now 71 and 69 days old. The youngest should fledge over the next few days.
Early flights will be very short to surrounding trees. If the fledglings land on the ground, it may be difficult for them to get airborne again. The fledglings will not stray far from the nest and will continue to be fed by both parents either away from the nest or decreasingly within it for a number of weeks. The parents do not teach the fledglings how to catch fish or other prey. Like flying, eagle feeding skills develop instinctively.
May 22, 2015
The eaglets are now 57 and 55 days old. There has not been a large number of food deliveries to the nest over the last week and the young have been very hungry. The Potomac River has been running high and muddy and this may have limited fishing success by the parents. The young have shown increasing ability to feed themselves, which makes any prey item difficult to share between them as the young defend their food by mantling over the item. The weather has been hot an humid and you can see the young panting hard to stay cool and seeking any available shade. Although the young are fairly large, the parents can often be seen perched above the nest or on a tree nearby to insure their safety.
May 8, 2015
The young are now 46 and 44 days old, with more complete dark feathering. This plumage marks them as juveniles. The young will retain these darker feathers until they begin approaching reproductive maturity at around four years of age. At that time, white head and tail feathers will become apparent. Another striking physical change in the young over time is eye color: between now and adulthood, the juveniles' eyes - currently a dark brown - will lighten in color and eventually transition to a pale yellow. New behavioral developments include attempts at feeding from carcasses on their own, and exercising their wings. The young are about half way to fledging. Contrary to popular belief, birds are not taught to fly by their parents, rather, the development of that behavior is completely innate. On April 30, an immature eagle was seen around the nest. With optimal breeding habitat in short supply, there is strong competition for nesting sites and we interpret this as an indicator that our local eagle population is indeed healthy.
April 30, 2015
The nestlings are now 39 and 37 days old, with both molting into darker feathering, with the older bird considerably blacker with a more upright posture. The adults have delivered a variety of food items to the nest recently including fish, Canada goose, and groundhog - possibly roadkill. One nestling appeared to begin self-feeding on a fish carcass, but it is difficult for them at this stage of growth to get any leverage ripping at the flesh without having strong footing. The young often preen their feathers, pick at food and inedible items in the nest, and joust with one another. On hot days the nestlings sprawl out their legs and wings, and pant to keep cool. The parents continue to add sticks to the nest and occasionally green leafy material. Regarding that odd thing in the nest that has been partially pulled apart, we think it was a toy rubber duck pulled from the river.
April 20, 2015
The nestlings are now 29 and 27 days old. The oldest is starting to replace some of its thermal down with dark feathering on its wing. The parents have added new dry grass, some sticks and some greenery to the nest. The young are pretty expert at helping to keep the nest cup clean by squirting their droppings over the rim. The young still sprawl on their sides like puppies when they sleep, with their wings and feet spread awkwardly, possibly to help stay cool. Soon they will be always sitting more upright, with their feet under them.
April 14, 2015
The young, now 21 and 19 days old, are growing quickly into their enormous yellow feet. Their diet has varied over the last few days to include a mallard drake, unidentified mammal remains as well as the staple fish. One of the pair mantled over the duck carcass which is common behavior if a raptor is defending the kill from a competitor. During the weekend, the adults sometimes acted as if an intruder was in the vicinity. The male often brought in new sticks and rearranged the outer perimeter. The young appear to be able to thermoregulate well and no longer require much brooding. On sunny days, shade is limited and the birds have to sprawl out and pant to stay cool or stand in their parents shadow.
April 7, 2015
As sometimes happens in a normal asynchronous hatch, the last eagle hatchling is at a huge natural disadvantage in terms of obtaining food and protecting itself. Yesterday, the youngest and smallest hatchling died, appearing to be crushed by the carcass of a fish brought to the nest by one of the adults during feeding time. While sadness is a very human response to death, it is important to remember that the nestling death is a part of the natural selection process.
Billions - if not trillions - of young animals die each year. If every one of them survived, the globe would be overrun with animals from the tiniest of insects to the largest animals on earth, such as elephants. However, every environment presents challenges for survival. As a result, only those individuals that can best adapt to their environments will survive. If they live long enough, they will go on to reproduce, passing on to the next generation any traits that may have assisted with survival. This process is fundamental to life as we know it.
For an eagle, heron, or other large predatory bird, having 3 young in a single nesting season is an extreme maximum. In most cases only 1-2 offspring survive. In a typical year, these eagles have fledged 1-2 young. Only twice have they had 3 young fledge. There were also two years when no young survived at all - the eggs were damaged by snowfall, or the hatchling starved.
The death of the smallest nestling means the 2 remaining animals have a better chance of survival, with more food and parental care available to them while they are maturing in the nest and after leaving the nest when they are still fed for a few weeks until they are fully capable of feeding themselves.
April 6, 2015
The nestlings are being well fed with fish and the days have been pretty warm. The young may sometimes be so warm that they have to pant to cool off. The nestlings are hatched with a coat of natal down, which does not have much insulating ability so that chicks must be brooded for warmth particularly at night. Natal down is replaced by thermal down beginning around 10 days of age. Thermal down has good insulating qualities and by 15 days chicks are typically able to thermoregulate on their own. The emergence of browner juvenile feathers usually begins around 27 days.
April 2, 2015
The young are growing quickly proportionally, with the size differences based on age readily apparent. Besides a few species of fish, the eagles have been feeding on rabbit, squirrel and what appeared to be ground hog. With the oldest birds now 11 and 9 days old and youngest now 6, you can see how the largest birds do not have to be brooded as much as the smallest to stay warm as the high temperatures in Shepherdstown have been in the low to mid-70's. One limiting factor in these warm spring days is that the young must obtain all their moisture from the fresh flesh of the fishes and mammals they are fed. There is no way the parents can bring them water and the young will be unable to drink until they leave the nest when they are at least 10 weeks old.
March 30, 2015
Because they initiate egg-laying in the winter cold, Potomac bald eagles must initiate incubation with the first egg which leads to asynchronous hatching. The result is what we see in this Shepherdstown nest: young of varying levels of maturity. As we can see here, the most mature hatchlings are larger, more vigorous, coordinated and alert, getting first crack at any food offered by the parents. The more mature hatchlings can often out-maneuver their smaller, less mature hatchlings when the parents are presenting food. Sometimes the larger birds appear to trample and lay upon their smaller siblings in the nest cup. Luckily there is so much fish food (apparently smallmouth bass, golden redhorse suckers) available at present that all the young are receiving sufficient nourishment. The only limiting factor appears the parents' motivation to keep feeding each hatchling until they are all satiated, often one by one - largest to smallest. A week from now, the 3 young will also vary in their feathers with the oldest having thermal down, with more control over its own body temperature, and the youngest still in natal down requiring more brooding from its parents to stay warm.
March 27, 2015
The 3rd egg hatched around 8 AM this morning. The parents appeared to notice when the hatchling was struggling to get out of the open shell. The first hatched young is now 5 days old and the 2nd is now 3 days old. The adults have proven themselves very adept at bass fishing; at this point there is abundant food for all. Temperatures are trending warmer during the day, although we anticipate below freezing temps during the night for the next couple of nights. If all chicks survive and fledge, it will be the first time in several years since three have fledged from this nest.
March 26, 2015
As the sun went down, 2 hatchlings were fed and then brooded. Then came a huge thunderstorm with pouring rain. The brooding adult tried to prevent the young and remaining egg from becoming wet/cold directly with their chest and with their draped wings. The last egg may hatch over the next day or two. If it not viable it may become buried beneath the thick nesting material as the hatchlings and their parents move around. The bass fishing has apparently been very good and a possible rabbit carcass was also visible among the fish carcasses.
March 24, 2015
The 2nd egg appears to have hatched this morning. If everything continues to go well, the 3rd egg should hatch in the next few days. Based on the abundance of fish delivered by both parents to the nest, the hatching has been perfectly timed with Potomac fish runs.
March 23, 2015
The first egg hatched around 2 pm on March 22. The hatchling received its first fish meal a few hours later. Today at 1 day old, the young appears vigorous and is avidly feeding. The first egg was expected to hatch around March 19, so either completed incubation is a running a little late or remaining eggs may not be viable. In this cool weather and before they attain their thermal down, the hatchlings will have to be brooded to keep warm. The fish brought to the nest are often hard to identify, but over the last few days the parents have caught suckers, bass, and fish in the Pike family.
March 16, 2015
The snow in the nest quickly melted away making it easier for the pair to incubate its 3-egg clutch. If each of the eggs were successfully brooded for the necessary incubation period (approximately 35 days), they will hatch one at a time in the order they were laid, with estimated hatching dates between March 19 and March 26. After hatching, the nestlings covered with natal down, will be unable to thermoregulate for about 2 weeks, requiring constant brooding from either parent to stay warm. After about 15 days, the nestling's natal down will be replaced by thermal down which will can keep them better insulated from the cold.
March 5, 2015
Thursday, March 5 has been a hard day for the eagle pair; trying to incubate 3 eggs in a blizzard with up to 10 inches of snow in the nest. Many times the incubating eagle was totally covered in snow with only their heads free. When the birds transferred incubation duties, it was quite a production. It sometimes appeared that one bird nudged the other to get up off the eggs. There was a lot of snow for the bird rising from the eggs to brush off their feathers, and the eggs had to be momentarily exposed to the cold, before the other animal carefully settled to brood. Sometimes it appeared the larger female only allowed the male to brood the eggs for a very short time before replacing him. If anyone ever doubts the powerful instinctual drive of wild animals to breed, just take a look at these birds gamely brooding their eggs with no respite, while laying in a giant bowl of nearly a foot of freshly fallen snow. It is truly amazing to see.
Over the last few days before the snowstorm hit, the birds were consistently bringing large suckers into the nest, suggesting the fish are running in the Potomac River. However, fishing opportunities may decline over the next week, as the Potomac is flooding due to its many muddy tributaries upstream filling with heavy rain and snowmelt. The next few days may be decisive, determining whether or not this clutch of eggs will remain viable. It can be painful to watch how extreme weather wreaks havoc on wildlife.
March 2, 2015
The nesting pair has been weathering extreme cold, heavy wind, sleet and snow these past two weeks. Their capacity to incubate eggs under such harsh weather conditions seems extraordinary to us, but the pair has successfully done so, year after year. It is not clear why the birds have deposited a number of conifer cones in the nest, which local eagle observers have not seen before. Perhaps when the cones are floating down the river, they appear as fish carcasses. However, some eagles have been observed apparently playing with inedible items.
Based on what food items have been delivered to the nest, food has either not been abundant or the birds are simply eating away from the nest. Parts of the Potomac River have had significant ice cover (last week the Shenandoah River downstream in Harpers Ferry was completely frozen over) and the absence of open water can set limits on where bald eagles and other fish-eating birds can over-winter. Eagles are able to fast for many days without harm.
February 19, 2015
A third egg has arrived! We anticipate that this egg should hatch around March 26th. If each egg is viable, by that date the nest will contain nestlings that are 7 days old, 4 days old and 1 day old. Feeding these eaglets may be quite challenging with considerable competition for food between the nestlings of such a wide range of sizes and stages of development.
February 18, 2015
On February 15, the female eagle laid a second egg. If all goes well, this egg is likely to hatch around March 22. Hopefully the disruption at the nest on February 15 did not lead to the cooling of the 1st egg. The eagles also encountered a snow storm (with around 3 inches of snow accumulation) and freezing temperatures earlier in the week.
Only large birds such as eagles and great-horned owls are massive enough to create enough body heat to keep eggs warm in the dead of winter. Incubation of eggs during winter times the hatch for the more temperate weather and abundant prey available in the early spring - such as early runs of suckers on the Potomac.
February 13, 2015
The egg laid February 12, 2015 in the afternoon is likely to hatch after about 35 days, around March 19. One or 2 more eggs are likely to arrive over the next 4 to 5 days, with accordingly later hatching dates. Although the female will likely do most of the incubation, both sexes have developed a brood patch and will continuously incubate the eggs, turning them every so often for even warming and to maintain a healthy relationship between the embryonic membranes and shell. The eggs must remain covered to avoid cooling.
February 5, 2015
For the first time, we observed a visitor to the nest interacting with a member of the nesting pair in a non-threatening manner. This morning at around 10 a.m., a sub-adult eagle was spotted in the nest, and stayed for over an hour. Two separate times, one of the adult eagles joined the sub-adult in the nest, and did not appear to be disturbed by its presence. One could infer that this might indicate the sub-adult fledged from the same nest years ago. However, bald eagles don't live in family groups that stay together over the years. Typically, sub-adult birds disperse widely before reaching maturity, seeking unoccupied territory in which to breed. This sub-adult eagle was seen moving twigs around in the nest this morning, and may have been honing its nest building skills.
We can tell from the head feathers that the sub-adult eagle is likely between three and four years old. Its feathers are mostly dark, and have not yet been replaced by the white head and tail feathers, (and completely dark back) which indicate sexual maturity at around four (to five) years of age. If the juvenile continues to frequent the nest, interactions with the adults could become combative(as the sub-adult will compete with the nesting pair for food and space.
Competition among eagles for choice nesting areas is not uncommon, given that eagle populations have increased in our area while suitable habitat is limited. Conflicts between eagles can be very aggressive, resulting in injury or even death, similar to what we observed during the 2012 nesting season. The NCTC cam provides us with a window into the wild, and our standing policy is not to interfere in any way with the natural life cycle of the eagles that nest here.
February 4, 2015
American bald eagles are early breeders. In our relatively northern state of West Virginia, egg laying is often in early February, when the average temperature is frequently near freezing. Any egg must be incubated immediately and for approximately 35 days in order to maintain viability. Some images of the nest from yesterday seem to indicate there may have been an egg laid, but without incubation during the night, that egg would not be viable.
Once an egg is laid, both sexes will take turns incubating it. Both sexes also develop a brood patch to effectively cover the eggs and warm the hatchlings. If winter weather is successfully endured, a full clutch of two to three eggs being laid over a two to five day period culminates over a month later in eggs hatching one or two days apart, resulting in eaglets at different stages of development being fed on abundant spring runs of Potomac River fish. This is different from other commonly observed birds, such as song birds, which only begin incubating their eggs once the full clutch is complete, ensuring that eggs generally hatch at about the same time.
January 1, 2015
It is the beginning of January 2015 and over the last month, our pair of bald eagles at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, has been observed carrying large sticks and leafy material in their talons to prepare their nest for egg-laying that is likely to occur at the end of this month or in early February. This is the tenth season that the nest has been active.
The larger female will lay 1-3 eggs and both birds will continually incubate them during the harshest weather. Bald eagles feed primarily on fish with an occasional waterfowl, turtle, snake, with rabbit , deer shank or roadkill consumed as well. One to three young have been fledged most years at this location, with two young fledged in 2014.
This is the same pair of bald eagles that has been together since 2011 when a new male, with a note-worthy black feather spot on his head, replaced the resident male that had been nesting with the same female since the nest first became active in 2006.
During the last three years there was evidence of territorial competition as adult birds fought over the nest site to determine who would claim the huge nest structure located at the top of a 100 foot-tall sycamore. There have been single adult birds, likely not from our pair, seen in the nest over the past several weeks.
American bald eagles reach sexual maturity (attaining a pure white head) at the age of four to five years, the bald eagle builds the largest nest of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal, up to 13 ft. deep, 8 ft. wide, and weighing up to a metric ton. The birds typically remain paired for as long as they live and will often return to the same nests, with the birds living 25 years or more.
Bald eagles nesting in the region usually stay here their entire lives, as long as they have access to open water to feed on fish.
The resident population is strong and there is great competition for nesting areas. The Chesapeake Region is an important stop for bald eagles migrating from other parts of North America during spring and autumn.
Join us for this new nesting season. Please don't hesitate to ask us questions.
This project is a partnership between the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Outdoor Channel, and the Friends of the National Conservation Training Center. We also acknowledge the many dedicated eagle fans from around the country and the world who have been with us from the beginning, and who have provided a great deal of support for this project.