Our national bird: Bald eagles have returned to SW Florida and soon they’ll be laying their eggs

This Bald Eagle is from the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey based in Maitland. File photo

This Bald Eagle is from the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey based in Maitland. File photo

A Bald Eagle. File photo

Photo by GREG KAHN

A Bald Eagle. File photo

* Their feet have 300 pounds per square inch grasping pressure.

* They eat 75 percent fish.

* There have been an average of 30 active nests in Collier each year since 2005 and 61 in Lee.

* The National Eagle Repository in Denver, Colo., distributes eagle parts for Native American ceremonies.

* The name “bald eagle” comes from the old English world balde, which meant white head or white spot. It means white-headed eagle.

Source: Lynda White, Project EagleWatch

Bald Eagle

Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Range: North America’s lower 48 states, Canada, Alaska and the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.

What to look for: A large raptor with a brown body, white head and tail, a large, hooked bill and long, broad wings.

More: Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Web site for more information www.allaboutbirds.org

... your bird photos, videos or questions! Is there a bird you’d like to learn more about, or do you have photos of a visitor in your backyard? E-mail questions, photos and videos to me and you might see yourself featured in a future column. Or, connect with me at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katy_bishop

It’s a weekday morning, and Naples resident Tom Nelson drives down a dead-end street off of Wiggins Pass Road. He opens a locked gate into a Boy Scout camp, parks his car, gets out his walking stick and walks down a trail.

Through the sabal palms and saw palmettos, Nelson walks quietly. Listening. Watching.

He’s on his way to visit C001, a bald eagle nest site that he’s been monitoring for about 16 years with Audubon’s Project EagleWatch.

After a five-minute walk, Nelson arrives, pauses and looks up toward the tallest tree. There, in the crotch between two branches, is the nest: A huge pile of sticks high in the air. The nests are deep, and there could be an adult eagle inside there now, he says. The pair who use this nest are back, and soon they’ll lay their eggs.

The bald eagle is a bird of stories and legends. It’s our national emblem and at one time, it was in danger of extinction in the lower 48 states.

When do eagles arrive in Southwest Florida?

The nesting season is from about October to May, Nelson says, and the Project EagleWatch volunteers check on their nests at least two times a month. He visits much more often.

Where do they go when they’re not here?

Most bald eagles head North, says Lynda White, Project EagleWatch coordinator. Many immature birds go to Chesapeake Bay, and the adults don’t go quite as far, possibly because they’re more efficient hunters.

What do they look like?

They have a 6- to 8-foot wingspan, weigh six to 10 pounds and females are larger. Florida’s eagles are about 25 percent smaller than northern eagles because they don’t have to weather cold winters.

“They’re majestic,” White says. “People often remark on how an eagle looks like he’s always scowling, that he looks very stern. That’s the bony ridge over his eye and it acts as a sun visor.”

Do they pair for life?

Unless one of the pair doesn’t make it, the birds pair for life, Nelson says. One year he noticed that one of the eagles at that nest off Wiggins Pass Road was different, and he guesses that one of them didn’t make it that year.

“Eagles are solitary for most of the year, but together as a pair it’s very romantic,” White says. “They touch beaks like they’re kissing. We try not to anthropomorphize but it’s hard.”

You might also see them flying in circles with their wings touching, White says, or doing what’s called a cartwheel, where they fly high up, lock talons, spiral almost to the ground and then fly up to do it all over again. Many people think they’re mating in air, but they’re not, she says. It’s courtship.

How do they make their nests?

Eagles like to nest within a mile or so of a large body of water, White says. They like live pines, and usually choose the largest tree in a stand because hunting and flying takes a lot of energy. It’s easier if they can do some of the work while perched in a tall tree.

“These birds can live over 30 years in the wild and they’re mature at the age of 5, so you’re looking at 25 or 30 years that these birds can be productive,” she says. “The nests can get to be enormous. The largest recorded nest was a West Florida nest and it was 9 feet across, 18 feet deep and it weighed two tons. That’s about the weight of a small car.”

When do they lay their eggs?

Most lay their eggs in December, usually laying two. The adults take turns incubating, walking around on their knuckles so they don’t stab the eggs with their talons, White says. Then, in 33 to 35 days, the eaglets hatch.

“You can tell by the habit of the adults when they’ve hatched,” Nelson says. “You see a parade of fish coming in. In the beginning, the adult has to break the fish up for them, but as they get older they just drop it and there’s a scramble.”

“They grow faster than any other bird in North America,” White says. “They go from 4 ounces to up to 10 pounds in 10 weeks.”

How do they learn to fly?

The nests are large so that the babies have room to run and jump and flap, White says. Then one day, they figure out how to hover, then how to jump from branch to branch — and soon they get up enough nerve to take off. It’s usually at about 10 to 12 weeks old.

“They look like somebody who has never dove from 15 feet up — they peek over the edge and say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can do that,’” Nelson says. “Then one of them will fly to another tree and after that they’ll all be off in the distance, gone for hours.”

When do they head North?

Most of the young fledge in late March or April and they leave about four to six weeks after that, White says. Once they start flying, they start looking for food on their own, but for a time continue to return to the nest. As long as they return, mom and dad stay, too.

How strong is their population in Florida?

In Florida they are no longer endangered or threatened, White says. There was a dramatic increase for years after DDT was banned, but now it’s starting to level off.

“You have a good healthy population in Collier and Lee,” she says. “But in Collier County especially, the human population has just exploded over the years and that has led to some problems. Loss of habitat is our biggest problem with eagles now.”

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