Drama of the Day

According to my Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, given in his customary staccato language, the Bald eagle: “….with its white head and white tail is all field mark. Bill of adult yellow. Immature has dusky head and tail, dark bill. It shows whitish in the wing-linings and often on the breast….” (emphasis in text) He adds that the “voice is a harsh, creaking cackle, kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik or a lower kak-kak-kak.” That at least is very descriptive: harsh and creaking!

We—the small cluster of neighborhood walkers all masked and distanced—were certainly halted with our gaze pulled skyward by that call which shattered the peace of the afternoon. There, not too high for viewing but ducking in and out of view behind some tall Douglas firs, were two eagles circling and calling and gliding in this and then that direction, but always crisscrossing and making a huge racket. Were they courting? Were they male and female or two males challenging each other? Did the females have the same field marks, the white head, especially? We were tentative in our speculations.

Peterson’s system, which revolutionized field identification of birds when he first published in 1934, focuses on identifying “marks” you can see at a glance, to distinguish one species from another closely related one.

Once back home I could peruse my handy field guide. Peterson doesn’t come out and say in so many words, but in his case the absence of comment indicates that the mature males and females share the same markings. Peterson gave me the basics but I still had questions. I then turned to the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as an additional trusted source. I learned that females can weigh as much as two to four pounds more than the males and have a wingspan half a foot longer, but that would have been difficult to measure from where we had stood transfixed. More locally, the website of Seattle Audubon indicated that yes, now would be courting season as the time for egg-laying is generally late winter to early spring. So it seemed likely that these were a male and female pair of eagles.

The female lays two eggs in her nest of sticks high up in a conifer tree, but slightly sheltered by the trunk and some branches, not at the top where it would be vulnerable to crows and other dangers. Unless separated by mishap, eagles mate for life when they are four-to-six years old. As they can live as much as forty years, that’s a long relationship!

The mated pair care for their young together, taking turns in the nest until hatching, which happens about 36 days after laying. One parent stays with the young while the other hunts, again taking turns. It takes a long time for such large birds to mature. It is ten to twelve weeks before the chicks can fly and two to three months before they can defend themselves and venture out from the watchful scrutiny of their parents’ sharp yellow eyes!

We will keep a lookout for the pair on our weekly walks. Seeing eagles adds a buzz of excitement and a welcome distraction to our Covid-limited world. Outside our daily human-centered preoccupations it’s a tremendous lift to remember there are eagles, great seven-foot wings scribing trails through the sky, waking us up to lives lived in quite other realms.

The snow from our recent storm is melting and plants like these daffodils are emerging to assert–again–that spring really is coming. The eagles announced it, too, in their own way. Ready for what comes next!

Here are links to the sites I mention:

http://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/bald_eagle

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/lifehistory

8 thoughts on “Drama of the Day

    1. It did feel like luck, right place, right moment. But there was no missing the racket they were making. Somehow you think an eagle would make a deeper, more sonorous sound instead of that high-pitched cackling as Peterson describes it. Very large chickens indeed!

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  1. Just today I first noticed a junco carrying nest material in our yard…perhaps your eagles are the pair that formerly nested near 24th and Water St.

    On Thu, Feb 18, 2021 at 12:34 PM Afield with Margaret McKenny wrote:

    > annekilgannon posted: ” According to my Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to > Western Birds, given in his customary staccato language, the Bald eagle: > “….with its white head and white tail is all field mark. Bill of adult > yellow. Immature has dusky head and tail, dark bill. It sho” >

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  2. I think so, it seems very likely that these are the same birds that have had Capitol Lake as their territory in the past. I’ve seen them off and on all winter but just not so loudly as the other day! Yesterday the smaller birds–sparrows, juncos, and others–were noticeably very busy around my front yard and singing, singing, singing! Surely, it must be spring? The snow is melting fast with the rain washing it away. But the national weather scene cautions me not to take anything for granted! Are we roaring in like a lion or a lamb?

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  3. How lucky you were! I have heard of these aerial displays, and have even seem them in slow motion on TV, but never in person. Good for you. Spring is definitely in the air, although it doesn’t feel like it. I just had a herd of about 20 robins descend on my front yard.

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  4. A herd of robins! Grazing for worms. I tried to take photos of some sitting in nearby trees but the light just made them into silhouettes against the sky. My neighbor’s holly tree is a great draw for them.

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