Watching a young Bald Eagle up-close is an amazing event, one experienced by relatively few people in the wild. But to see two huge eagle chicks, as they live and breathe -- chicks that you have been watching daily ever since they were arrived as eggs back in February -- is extraordinary. These aren't just "any" eaglets. You know the history of the parents, and the history of the nest. They are part of an extended family that you watch from afar from February to June each year.
Just six weeks ago, these two gawky nestlings were little fluffs of cotton, and now it is amazing what Mother Nature and a pair of dedicated parents in nurturing mode can do. But I get ahead of myself. The goal of this post is to give folks who watch the Eagle Cam an idea of what it was like to witness the banding in person and to share some behind-the-scenes information and observations.
Mom flies nearby.
This May morning was perfect, after days and days of rain. As soon as the banding contingent got within 100 yards of the nest, the two adult eagles made themselves known, circling overhead and shouting their displeasure with remarkably feeble voices. During the entire time we were under the nest tree, the parents were always flying around, keeping a watchful eye.
Both parents have seen previous chicks get banded, but they wanted still wanted to be on hand for a birds-eye view of the proceedings. As the time wore on, the eagles circled higher and higher. While tree climber (and state wildlife biologist) John Heilferty assembled his climbing gear, including a padded boat hook to gently coax the eaglets over to him, eagle veterinarian Erica Miller placed a throw rug on the ground near the tree and assembled her measuring and blood sampling equipment, the tools of her trade.
Dr. Erica Miller. Kathy Clark, dean of the eagle team, prepared the eaglet transport satchel, including a leather hood for each, purple gauze wraps to keep their legs together, and a terrycloth towel. One thing I did not expect was the amount of other bird activity near the tree.
During the time I was in the vicinity of the tree, I saw two Red-tailed Hawks and a Great Blue Heron fly past, and other birds heard or seen included Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Warbling Vireo, Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. This patch of woods was alive with birdsong -- and with birds oblivious to the eagle nest above. John Heilfertys ascent of the sycamore went as smooth as the tree's trunk. It was not until he had situated himself next to the nest and went through a few minutes of measures to secure himself to the tree that you realized just how high off the ground he was, and what a challenging and sometimes precarious job he has.
John Heilferty methodically coaxed the first eaglet to the canvas bag, put a leather hood over it, gently wrapped its legs in the purple gauze wrap, and lowered it to Kathy Clark, who brought the bag (and its eaglet contents) to veterinarian Erica Miller. Kathy Clark and Erica Miller went to work with deliberate speed so they could return the chicks to the nest as quickly as possible. First they took measurements of the wings (to the tip of the eighth primary feather), feet, talons and bills and recorded the data. Then they took a blood sample, which would be used to confirm the sex of each chick and also to measure contaminant levels in their blood for residual DDT, PCBs and heavy metals.
This information will be shared in a national eagle database, along with their DNA -- which will help show their lineage and help researchers down the road.
The first chick received a green New Jersey band marked E41 on her right leg, and an aluminum federal band on her left. The second received a green New Jersey band marked E42 on left right leg, and an aluminum federal band on her right. When Kathy Clark held the chicks foot, with the talons on the end, you could see just how enormous it was. Kathy Clark said she was fairly certain that both eaglets were females a week ago. The reason: She had seen the chicks next to the banded male in the nest, their feet were nearly as large as his already.
Erica Miller also used a stethoscope to check each chick's breathing. A-OK. After each chick received her exam, she was given several sips from a water bottle. When Kathy Clark attached the canvas bag to the rope so the second (and last) chick could be hoisted back to the nest, she attached two nice-size Menhaden in a plastic bag. As folks could see on the Eagle Cam, John Heilferty placed the two fish neatly in the nest so the chicks would have something to snack on after the banding.
Two Menhaden to go, special delivery.
Menhaden are a fish of choice for Ospreys, Kathy Clark said, because they school near the surface of the water. John Heilferty then decended from the nest, and the New Jersey eagle banding team stowed away its gear. Soon, the three pros were off to band chicks from another nest that afternoon. In all, they will band chicks from 14 or 15 nests this year. The state has approximately 200 active nests by some estimates, up from only one as recently as the early 1980s. Incredible.
As we left the nest tree area, I could see one of the eaglets calmly looking at the world from the edge of the nest, with the cam that has documented her life in the background. She was home again, and her morning adventure had come to an end. Six weeks ago, she arrived as a ball of fluff so weak she could not hold her head up at first. In six more weeks, she will likely fledge and enter the world on her own. She will be not just a majestic but anonymous Bald Eagle. She will be E41 or E42, from Hillsborough, New Jersey.
Got a question or suggestion? E-mail Jim at email@example.com.
Jim Wright writes The Bird Watcher columnist for The Record. He is the author of four coffee-table books about wild places, and a deputy marsh warden of the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, N.J.