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  • Writer's pictureLutzR2

Observing a Bald Eagle Nest

Volunteering for a Citizen Science Program
bald, eagle, nestling, nest,
A bald eagle nestling waits for its parent to deliver a meal.

While scrolling through my social media in late 2023 I happened upon a post mentioning the Bald Eagle Nest Watch program organized by the Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance (then called Madison Audubon). They were recruiting volunteers to monitor bald eagle nests around our local area. This “Citizen Science” gives people an opportunity to observe and document the activities of a specific nest spanning from the initial occupation of the nest through the fledgling of the eaglets. This is typically a four month period, but some can run up to nearly six months. 

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An adult bald eagle returning to the nest.

This sounded like a perfect project for me to participate in. I have always wanted to emulate the scientists I once worked with at the Carnegie Museum, and being given the chance to contribute to a scientific program that helps Bald Eagles really excited me. They have attracted my attention ever since moving to the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, and I have enjoyed snapping photos of these majestic birds whenever the opportunity has presented itself. I didn’t hesitate in signing up, and was thrilled when I was assigned a nest very close to my home. 

In fact, I had spotted the nesting pair of adult eagles often over the past few years. Typically I would see an adult perched over the healthy trout stream that runs down the steeply sloped, heavily wooded, and narrow valley. I would also occasionally see a photographer parked along the road, camera in hand, trying to take a photo of the bird. The shoulders of the road aren’t the best, and I have to admit I was somewhat apprehensive of pulling off the road safely. Although I had a feeling there was a nest located here, I could never spot it, no matter how slowly I drove along this scenic landscape. 

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The nest is located in a narrow valley of the Driftless Area.

I was very excited when I was paired with a local couple that had been watching this nest for a few years. In early January I followed the instructions that had been emailed to me regarding how to find the nest. I tried simply doing drive-bys, trying to locate it, but couldn’t seem to find it. Located on a steep hillside, in a tall oak tree surrounded by a thick canopy, it’s at just the right angle to make it nearly impossible to see from a vehicle. 

I should also mention that the BENW program doesn’t just send you out to your nest without training. In the middle of January they held an online, live streamed training session. It was one of the most simple, comprehensive, and informative education programs that I have ever enjoyed. It truly gave me valuable insight, and I was able to discern the sometimes extremely subtle behavior I eventually observed. Also, I should note that the night before training I received an email, thankfully in error, telling me that I had NOT been selected for the program. Thinking I had been cut, it really made me feel terrible, but thankfully I sent a very polite reply, which is when I discovered the rejection email was mistakenly sent to me. I was so happy I had acted respectfully! Mistakes happen, getting upset and lashing out would have just made me look the ass.

bald, eagle, fly, flying, adult,
An adult eagle flies from the nest to ward off some turkey vultures that flew too close.

Speaking of looking like an ass, I have to mention my first time observing the nest. It was the last few days of January. After leaving the gym I thought I would take another drive past the area to see if I could finally spot the nesting tree. I was in my gym clothes, and had no intention of getting out of my jeep. The weather wasn’t too cold, but it was the middle of winter and snow lay over the land. Following my written instructions I carefully pulled over to the side of the road, opposite the nest. I had it in 4WD, and kept my driver’s side wheels on the road. I have to admit I was very nervous about not being all the way off the pavement as traffic on this road can be frequent at times, and lots of agri-industry trucks use it. 

I quickly spotted the nest, and in my hurry to get moving again I failed to turn off my wrangler’s Limited Slip Differential. When I began to drive away the passenger side wheels slipped in the icy, slushy snow, the LDS kicked in sending all torque to that side and turning off what was on the pavement. This then pulled me sideways off the road onto a very steeply sloped shoulder. Yoinks.

Thankfully I keep outdoor clothing in my jeep, so I was able to change from my light, sweaty gym gear into something that would keep me warm. I have all sorts of recovery gear in my vehicle, but nothing I tried would get me off the slope, and my efforts only caused me to slip further downhill. Being that the road was so busy I couldn’t winch my way out as there was no safe way to attach it without risking an accident. I ended up calling AAA to send a wrecker, and settled in to wait. 

This turned into a four-hour-long observation of the bald eagles, who appeared soon after I decided to just “go with it.” As I stood, facing opposite the nest I suddenly noticed the reflection of one of these big birds flying through the canopy. Taking out my binoculars, I watched it carry branches to the nest, and as it landed I then spotted the other adult sitting in the nest itself. I waited for my tow truck, and between bouts of motorists stopping to see if I needed help (or scolding me for “going too fast” -eyeroll emoji-), I was able to observe this pair. One would fly down to the stream, collect a branch, and return. Eventually I saw what I believed to be copulation, something that I had never seen before. I thought it was a tad early in the season, and doubted myself at first, but it would turn out to be the case as brooding began soon thereafter. I was eventually towed out of trouble, and the loud activity didn’t seem to phase the birds in the least.

The following week I began my weekly observations, parking on the same side of the road as the nest. There was no way I was ever trying the steep shoulder of the other side ever again. I used my jeep as a blind, popping off the driver’s side roof panel. Mounting a 50 megapixel camera body onto a flattened tripod with a used EF 400mm f/5.6L telephoto lens that I purchased cheap just for this project, I was able to observe the nest on my tethered laptop. It made for easy viewing of the nest. 

The nesting tree, as I mentioned earlier, is up a steep slope, and is a tall oak located within a dense woodland. This made for direct observation into the nest itself. I had to watch for slight changes in the silhouette of the nesting material. Sometimes the only way I could tell something was in there was by comparing photos, looking for the changes to the negative spaces between the branches jutting out of the mass of sticks making up the nest. 

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A juvenile bald eagle returned to the nest to attempt feeding, but was chased off by the adults.

As the months passed I became used to hearing the distinct sounds of eagle wings. Occasionally an adult would fly close overhead, peering down into my jeep. It was a truly thrilling experience whenever they made eye contact, and they never seemed disturbed by my presence. Watching them brood their eggs, the subsequent behavioral changes as their chicks hatched, and all sorts of other activities was an incredibly satisfying experience.

bald, eagle, nestling, nest,
A nestling getting close to fledging out.

From February through the beginning of June I went at least once, sometimes twice per week, logging my hours. My observation teammates were awesome, and although we never met in person, it was nice to have someone to text photos to, and share the varied events as the nestlings grew. It wasn’t without hurdles, my jeep's AUX battery died one day as I had forgotten to turn off my hazard lights as I sat for over an hour, and my cell phone completely died on the very last day of observation. 

nestling, bald, eagle, fledgling,
Both nestlings fledged soon after taking this photo.

Once the two nestlings began flying my role ended. At about the same time that they took to the air the leaves of the trees grew out, obscuring the nest nearly completely. The canopy was so thick that it became impossible to even spot them sitting in the nearby trees, although I could occasionally hear them. I won’t lie, after months of observation, I felt a bit sad at the end. I truly enjoyed this project, and hope to participate in the future. It reinforced my ability to sit still and just focus on something outside of my head for a while. I will never forget the sounds of eagle wings, or their voices, both adult and nestling. 

The nest was empty by May 31st, 2024.

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