“Love Is In The Air” – The Courtship Of Bald Eagles

By Jennifer Thorpe

Perth County is a great destination for birders and nature photographers in all seasons.  Though the snow and lower temperatures present practical challenges, winter offers a chance to observe in forests and along waterways without the green screen of foliage.

This week’s feature was taken just east of St Marys by photographer Don Bailey.  A resident of St Marys, Don has been following the bald eagles in the area since 2001 when he first noticed them flying along the Thames.  Recently retired from St Marys Cement, Don had a “bird’s eye view” of the many eagles, hawks, and egrets that would fly over the Thomas Street Quarry but it was the bald eagles that really caught his attention.  “They took over my life!”

Don’s interest in birds caught on with his wife, Kim, and together the avid birders have become experts on the locations of many birding sites in Perth County and beyond.  Photography was a natural extension of birding, and over the years their gear has been finely honed to capture some incredible shots which are generously posted online.  They travel throughout southern Ontario and visit several Ontario Parks and conservation areas year-round.

Bald eagles mate for life and they are known for their incredible courtship rituals, including swooping flight, aerial stick exchanges and cartwheeling.  Through these aerial acrobatics they test the strength and agility of a potential mate.   Each winter, usually around January, eagles return to their nest and work together for one or two months to rebuild and repair the nest before mating. Eagles are devoted mates and parents who have “strong nest fidelity.”  When chicks are successfully fledged, eagle pairs will return to the same nest for years when the food supply is strong. The pair captured by Don are currently nesting in a site that has been in use by eagles for the past twenty years.

Bald eagles reach maturity and are ready to mate when they are four to five years old; that’s also when they get their white head and tail and completely yellow beak.  Eggs are laid in intervals of one to two days and hatch in the order that they are laid.  There are usually one to three eggs in a clutch; incubation is about 35 days. The pair will take turns incubating them, carefully curling their feet and talons away from eggs that weigh just a quarter of a pound.  Both male and female develop a brood pouch, a bare patch of skin on the belly which keeps the eggs extra warm.  This is crucial given the high locations of the nests which are often buffeted by strong winds and later winter or early spring storms.

While winter affords an opportunity to view bird activity without the challenge of foliage, it is not always possible for people to get out in the snowy, icy weather.  There are many online websites offering video clips taken from nest cams that offer a fascinating glimpse into the private lives of eagles.  Explore.org is the largest live nature cam network on the planet; their eagle nest cams are broadcast live on YouTube, featuring nests in southwest Florida; Decorah, Iowa; and Channel Islands National Park in southern California.

Two excellent online resources, Ontario Field Ornithologists (www.ofo.ca) and Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology (www.allaboutbirds.org), also offer some nest cam footage and much, much more.

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