It was the call I’d been waiting for all month. Dave Best, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was heading over to band our new crop of Lake Erie Metropark eaglets. As always, I was invited to come along. Unfortunately, I’ve missed the opportunity for the better part of the past decade due to scheduling snafus. I was fortunate to have been there when the team banded our first wild eaglet many years ago. That bird, nick-named Jennifer, was the first bald eagle born in our neck of the woods (Lower Detroit River) in nearly a century.
Jennifer’s parents have been returning to the same nest spot since the early 2000’s and have been producing chicks nearly every year. The USFWS banders have consistently returned to the site as well. An earlier flyover spotted two eaglets in the nest, so success was guaranteed – although there was the small matter of reaching the nest. This large structure was positioned high atop a leaning cottonwood tree some 80 feet in the air. Even though the structure was located on park property, it would not be a walk in the park.
Getting there did involve a short walk through the scrubby undergrowth and all the material had to be packed in to the site. On this day, Dave enlisted the volunteer help of his wife along with a young fellow with rock-climbing skills named Matt. I was there as an observer and resident gawker (promising not to say “wow” or “gee whiz” too many times). Upon perceiving us approaching the stately nest tree, the parent birds began to chatter nervously and circled about at tree-top height. If they only knew how much damage they could inflict, the whole situation would have been much different. Bald Eagles, however, do not engage in nest defense. They merely hang about and fret.
Matt was charged with scaling the tree while the team laid out their examination gear on the woodlot floor. He donned and double-checked his gear and then slowly monkied his way up the trunk (see here ). An occasional side branch hindered his ascent but he made it in good time (see above). “I hate it when he gets an easy tree,” Dave mumbled. Until recently he was the one doing all the ascents but, at the urging of his wife, the task was turned over to the “young bucks.”
At the nest, Matt grabbed one of the eaglets and firmly stuffed it into a blue vinyl bag. I did not see this part of the action, of course, since it took place 80 feet over our heads through a canopy obscured view. I did see the other nestling briefly contemplate jumping from the far side of the nest as his nestmate was being secured, but he opted out upon looking over the edge. The bundled bird was delivered to the ground via a long rope where Mrs. Best did her best to cradle the package and unhook it from the line (see below).
The ground procedure was performed like a slow even dance. Not a second was wasted. First, the eaglet was weighed while still in the bag (see here). It came in at a hefty 7.3 pounds. The befuddled, but exceedingly calm, eaglet was then pulled from the bag and laid upon its back (see beginning photo and below). The talons were wrapped and a blanket thrown over his head. A blood sample was drawn (see here) and a few small body feathers plucked for DNA sampling. The bird was subjected to a series of quick measurements to record the length of the 8th wing primary(see here), length and depth of the bill (see below), length of the toe pad and the length of the large “toe” talon called the hallux (see here). This talon measured over 1.25 in., by the way, and the footpad was 5 inches long. Finally, the bird’s ears and open mouth were checked for potential health problems (see here).
Once this part was completed, an aluminum band was placed around the right leg (see below). For large birds, the bands are secured with rivets rather than the crimping method used for smaller dickey bird bands. The first eaglet, a bird I tentatively (and secretly) dubbed Bernie, entered the record books as number 629-48292.
There were a few minutes made available to get my picture taken with this bird (not my idea, by the way) before it was re-bundled and pulled back up to the nest (see here). In regards to the resulting snapshot of me and the bird (see below), I can say that at least one of us was smiling! The second chick (Inge) was handled in an equally efficient a manner as the first. Being a bit larger at 7.7 pounds, yet younger (36 days as opposed to 40 days) Inge was showing all the indications of being a female. Her footpad measured over 5.25 inches and her hallux claw was nearly 1.5 inches long! She received the official designation as number 629-48293. I will say that she had the prettier eyes, although both had inquisitive deep brown peepers.
During all this time, the parent birds continued to circle but their chortling calls grew more and more infrequent. At one point, one of them landed on a nearby snag and simply watched the proceedings with great interest (see below). Both of these eaglets were respectively 24 and 20 days away from leaving the nest and they still had a lot of growing to do. The parent birds brought them successfully to this stage by keeping up a constant supply of prey to feed the hungry young. A partially eaten large mouth bass on the ground served as evidence of one of the meal options. According to Matt, who spent nearly 45 minutes in the nest during the procedure, there were also pheasant remains scattered about inside. You could say that there were 2 ½ birds in this nest.
As we packed out, Matt reminded Dave that the tree wasn’t especially easy to climb and that the nest was positioned at an inconvenient angle to the trunk. Dave nodded but secretly wished the next tree would be much harder to climb – at least that’s what his eyes said. As for me, the whole experience was uplifting. Two birds in hand proved better than two (or two and a half) in the bush.