Bald eagles are America’s national bird because they are the physical embodiment of American strength, endurance, and independent nature. Ironically, we Americans, in our constant drive for progress, nearly brought our bald eagles to extinction.
DDT was a commonly used pesticide after World War II, which seeped into our waterways, settling in fish, a primary part of a bald eagle’s diet. The pesticide thinned bald eagle egg shells, resulting in fewer successful hatches. Efforts to breed bald eagles in captivity were unsuccessful, despite years of effort. DDT nearly ended the bald eagle’s existence on the planet.
I grew up in the 60’s; we learned the bald eagles’ plight in elementary school. I grew up in Texas, and never expected to see a bald eagle in person. I thought they’d all be gone by the time I grew up.
We saw our first bald eagle over Lufkin spring of 2005. After that, I frequently saw them flying over town, often flying with turkey vultures. I’m a complete nature geek. I’d seen baldies at Kurth Lake and Lake Fork. But in 2010, after I learned there was a bald eagle nest actually in Lufkin, I went on the hunt.
Seems like it’d be easy to find an eagles’ nest, doesn’t it? After all, bald eagles build the biggest nest of any bird in North America.
But let me explain: I’m a natural blonde. It is the only explanation I can offer for the gaps in my thinking. I’m a relatively intelligent woman who often misses incredibly simple connections. My sense of direction is so askew, hubby says if my impulse is to turn right, I should automatically turn left. We often measure our road trips by the number of U-turns I make.
I lost my job at the end of 2011, so I had lots of spare time for birding and photography – two of my favorite pastimes. With the help of local ornithologist, Louis Debetaz, I located the nest through binoculars, and sought a closer view. I spent hours driving and looking, finding only disappointment around every curve.
Finally, I stopped and laid my head on the steering wheel in frustration. But my daddy didn’t raise no quitter. I took a deep breath, raised my head, and grabbed the wheel to make yet another U-turn. To my surprise, I looked up and saw two adult bald eagles perched on the largest bird’s nest I’ve ever seen. I actually jumped out of the car while it was in gear, my mouth hanging open. Thank goodness I managed to rescue the car before becoming a Darwin award winner. Can’t you just see that headline? “Woman killed by own car when awestruck by birds.”
Thus my obsession began.
I’ve spent hours at the nest; this is my 5th spring with our Lufkin baldies. The nest had been there for 10 years when I found it. Lots of folks knew it was there, but the location is kept relatively secret to protect the eagles. I only give specific directions to those I trust not to hurt them. Most of our nest-watchers are photographers/birders. There have been two bald eagle shooting deaths in Texas in 2017 already. After I found out my YouTube videos were helping people find the nest, I quit posting them. My heart won’t allow me to bring harm to our baldies. It’s a privilege to have access to them.
Since bald eagles don’t fully mature until their 4-5th year and our nest has been active for at least 15 years, our bald eagles eagles are senior citizens. They leave the area in late May or early June. If you’re visiting Ellen Trout Zoo lake, cast a glance toward the upper branches of the pine trees on the far side of the lake. The baldies often perch in those trees during their mating period, and it’s fun to play, “Where’s the eagle?”
Last fall, Mom returned with a new mate. Bald eagles mate for life, but will take a new mate if they lose one. After just a few visits, I recognized this was a new male. He’s a great hunter and provider, but this year Mom is doing the active parenting. Our eagles have had several disagreements over this. Nothing matches the magnificence of two eagles bickering. Their screams are piercing and can be heard for miles.
Eaglets are funny and remind me often of puppies. When they finally poke their heads up above the nest line, they look more like baby ostriches than eagles. They are gawky and awkward, lumbering and bickering like human siblings. There’s a lot of wing flapping, bragging about who can jump higher, and tug of wars over food. Often an eaglet will just fall over, jump up, and then act like nothing happened. You know what I mean, just like our pet cats do!
The eagles are as interested in humans as we are with them. There’s a lot of big earth-moving machinery near the nest. It’s noisy and loud, and the eaglets are fascinated by the back-up alarms. When the eaglets fledged that first spring, I leaped from my car (this time with the engine turned off). It was a very girly moment. I watched our first eaglet soar with tears running down my face. When my car door opened, the car beeped, and the second eaglet flew out to investigate. As he flew a foot over my head, it was breathtaking. Those talons are incredibly large and sharp up close!
Over the past four springs, I’ve watched seven eaglets be raised to fledglings. We’ve only lost one eaglet. It takes a great deal of stamina, strength and energy for baldies to fly and hunt. A newly fledged bird doesn’t have the stamina required to travel great distances. Two years ago, two babies flew out, but only one came home. Every night after, the parents watched in that direction for him to come home. It was a very sad moment for our eagles.
Right now, we’re watching two eaglets grow up. They like to show off their massive wing spans, which already equal their parents’. Our two are as tall as their parents, but significantly lacking in feathers! It takes about 80 days for bald eagles to grow out their 10,000 feathers and reach the fledgling point.
Over the years, I’ve shared our Lufkin eagles with other nature lovers. It’s a joy to watch someone’s face light up when these gorgeous birds flies overhead. I’ve taken more pictures than I can count, and killed three cameras in the process. I’ve seen mid-air battles with other adult eagles and hawks, and there are many juvenile eagles (possibly our previous fledglings) who visit the nest area.
It’s an emotional investment, watching and admiring a wild animal as they raise their young. We never know if our bald eagles will return to Lufkin. Our eagles are not tagged; there’s no real records kept except our own observations. When one has a relationship with a wild creature, one never knows when that relationship will end. Most likely, you will not even know what happened when they disappear.
I wait with bated breath for our eagles’ return each September. I enjoy the relationship we have, and am happy sitting in a field, under a clear blue Texas sky, watching these magnificent creatures. When the relationship ends, I will remain eternally grateful for this gift from God.