Love is in the air.....and not just for humans! Bald eagle courtship is in full swing now. These symbols of our nation are also a demonstration of fidelity -- they mate for life, and will re-use the same nesting location each year. In fact, the nest is a central feature to pair bonding, with both eagles working together to enlarge and improve the nest over previous seasons. The male, in particular, spends a lot of time finding just the right sticks, preparing the nest bowl, and building the egg cup. This is a sign of fitness to the female, since it is an energetically costly activity that demonstrates that the male is in good shape - he is well fed, skilled at flying, and likely relatively parasite free. The more effort and energy he puts into the nest, the more energy she puts into the reproductive process - improving the overall success of the pair. Large nests seem to signify quality to bald eagles, with one nest found in Sagahadoc County measuring over 20 feet high, 9 feet across, and thought to weigh more than 2 tons!
Pairs spend time sitting near each other and vocalizing together. This can help increase the pair bonding, much like nest building does. While eagles are famous for the whirling, intense and crazy nuptial flights they perform in which they may even lock talons, these more "tame" displays of affection probably are even more important to establishing the pair. I spent a large part of an afternoon watching this pair bonding - and doing some cooperative hunting, as they made low passes over a loafing flock of ducks - terrorizing the ducks while the second bird could watch the flock looking for signs of weakness. Although Bald eagles in Maine tend to primarily eat fish (often left by ice fisherman this time of year), they also favor waterfowl - and often those that are injured during hunting season or otherwise showing signs of disease during the long winter season. This duck flock looked strong and they all reacted quickly to each pass made by the eagles. I felt badly for the flock but the process was incredible to watch.
Clearly, none of the flock of about 500 ducks wanted to wind up in these massive talons!
Not only do eagles believe in the motto "until death do us part", they are both active in the process of nest building and the rearing of chicks. Both parents accept responsibility for incubating the young, and feeding and teaching the eaglets. Bald eagles have been known to breed by the age of 4 years, and live in the wild for up to 28 years! Subsequent generations may take over the nest of previous pairs, continuing to enlarge and add on - with active nests continuing for 60 or more years! Eagles are creatures of habit, liking to use the same perches, feeding areas, nocturnal roosts - and of course, nests.
This eagle seemed to be telling me to stop photographing them and allow them to have some private date time! After a while of perching together and occasionally touching each other, they flew off - one after the other - to what I presumed was their nocturnal roost site given how close we were to sunset. Feeling like I had intruded enough on their private lives, I chose not to follow them downriver but left them to their business. In another month or two, this pair will likely be raising their eaglets - and I'm hoping to be able to enjoy another phase of their life cycle through the lens of my camera.
As our thoughts turn to spring -- and Valentine's Day is here....... this week, I couldn't resist an instagram quiz featuring some babies from last year. Can you identify these adorable balls of fuzz?