Bald eagles take flight near Shepherdstown
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Shade your eyes. Crane your neck and look up high into a tree at a very large bird nest constructed of sticks, branches and pieces of wood. You can’t see the inside of the nest, but it is lined with softer materials such as moss or tree leaves.
At this time of year, the earlier inhabitants of that nest are not paying it much attention at all.
At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services National Conservation Training Center, just outside Shepherdstown, are bald eagles.
They are not raising young at this time of the year. But they usually stay around the area because of the Potomac River and its revived waters now providing the large birds with fish and even mammals that live near it.
In many years, the adult eagles lay two or three eggs and brood them for about 35 days before they hatch. In recent years, the eggs have hatched during the cold of February. And snows and cold temperatures worsened by steady winds have killed the young eaglets.
If the young do survive the cold and damp weather, they will attempt their first flights in 10 to 12 weeks.
Many times, if eggs hatch at three or four day intervals, only the largest of the youngsters will survive.
The parents make regular visits to the river and its banks and catch fish that are brought back to the nest and torn into small pieces and fed directly to the young birds.
If catching live fish becomes difficult, eagles will exist on carrion, including dead fish. A bald eagle is not above stealing food from other fish eaters like the osprey or smaller birds.
The eagles show their white-feathered heads and brownish-black body feathers at age four or five, the age when they first breed.
Pale yellow eyes that seem to an observer to be keenly concentrating or fiercely haunting add to the eagles’ independent look. Bright yellow legs and feet with griping talons are in tandem with the yellow hooked beak necessary for tearing apart food for the young or adult.
The adult female is larger than the male and often do more brooding of the eggs or the gray, down-covered eaglets.
When one adult is protecting and brooding the eggs, the other adult will try to secure food for his or her mate and the little ones. Eagles sometimes mate for life, but not always.
The large nest is often reused from year to year and can be reinforced and made even larger as the years slip by.
An adult bald eagle usually weights between 10 and 14 pounds and the birds have a life expectancy of about 20 years.
The next attempt by the area’s adult bald eagles to hatch youngsters will probably come next February or early March. And the weather will then provide the obstacles that have to be constantly fought against if the eaglets are to survive to adulthood.
In the United States, the bald eagle population is on the increase now that more insecticides, pesticides and pollutants have been banned by laws. Fewer birds are being shot and killed — an illegal action that can be prosecuted.
Shade your eyes. Crane your neck and look skyward. Just outside Shepherdstown you will see the massive nest of bald eagles.