It’s that time of year — the time when bald eagle eggs are hatching throughout the state of Maine. Nestled in giant nests of sticks, moss and grass, these grey, fuzzy eaglets are tended to by both of their regal-looking parents, which feed them from a cache of food. Usually people don’t get the opportunity to see these eagle family interactions because eagle nests are often constructed in a hidden location, high up in a white pine tree, masked by thick boughs. However, there are exceptions. On Monday, I traveled to Poland, Maine, to do some reporting for a story and had the opportunity to observe an eagles nest that was right out in the open.
Located on an island in a pond (I’m intentionally being vague because I don’t want to be responsible for someone bothering these nesting birds), the nest was constructed at the very top of a tree, and it was massive. But this isn’t unusual. Bald eagles build some of the largest of all bird nests, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bald eagle nests are typically 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 2 to 4 feet tall. Both the male and female will contribute to the building process, but the female does most of the material placement, weaving the sticks together and filling in the cracks with softer materials. The inside of the nest is also lined with soft material, such as downy feathers, grass, and lichen. Many nests are reused year after year, and often the pair of eagles will build onto it each year, making it bigger and bigger.
I watched from afar, zooming in with my 400mm lens. Here’s a photo that isn’t zoomed in to show how far away I was.
The eagles didn’t look at me or seem to act disturbed by my presence, though eagles have excellent eye sight and likely knew exactly where I was. They did, however, screech in irritation at the loon swimming by, and at an osprey fishing nearby. In fact, one of the two eagles flew off to chase the osprey, which in turn chased the eagle. It was quite the aerial show.
But what was really exciting was seeing the light grey heads of two eaglets pop up over the edge of the nest, just for a few seconds, mouths snapping open and shut. I’m assuming they were asking for food.
An eagles diet largely consists of a variety of fish, but they’ll eat other things, including birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and invertebrates such as crabs, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And they tend to be selective about their food sources, according to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
When I first started watching the nest, only one adult eagle was there. I couldn’t tell if it was the female or male of the pair, since both have the exact same coloring — a white head, dark brown body, white tail, yellow talons, yellow eyes and a yellow, curved beak. The biggest difference between a female and male bald eagle is its size. Females are typically larger. So to try to figure it out from afar, you have to catch the two standing side by side.
After a few minutes, the other in the pair swooped in, and from the photos I took, it looks to be the larger of the two eagles, meaning it may have been the female. But I’m really not sure.
All I know is that the eagle came back empty taloned, and its mate did not seem impressed…
As it screeched at its mate, I imagined it was saying something like, “Seriously? No fish? You’ve been gone for an hour.”
While one eagle in a pair hunts for food, it’s important the other sticks around to guard the chicks from predators, such as other raptors. And for these fierce hunters, I imagine sitting watch on the nest is a tedious job. Perhaps that’s why they take turns. Before long, the one that had been sitting on the nest when I first arrived took flight, leaving its mate on eaglet duty.