The orange glow in the Eastern skies announces the coming of dawn as two Bald eagle hatchlings look out over the tops of the cypress trees and down on to the waters of the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The beautiful view from their nest is all they will see for the next 10 to 12 weeks, as they grow bigger and stronger, readying for flight.
The mating pair that brought life to these hatchlings likely started their courtship rituals in the fall, resuming in late January; and resumed courting and breeding from late February until the first week or so in March. The pair shares responsibility sitting the eggs and rearing the young as they are extremely susceptible to the cold; the pair must maintain a constant vigil.
For anyone fortunate enough to witness the mating ritual of the Bald Eagle, it is a spectacle they will never forget. The eagles dance in unison in an aerial display that is unmatched outside the natural world. They fly higher and higher flipping their bodies upside down and teasing each other with their talons. At the apex of the dance, these two massive Bald Eagles will latch talons and plummet straight to the earth, screaming and spinning in a display that looks as if it will surely end in death for the pair. Just before hitting the ground they separate, in an astonishingly close bid with the earth.
It is thought that nest building actually is more important to the bonding of the pair than the aerial displays. Most nests are six feet wide, up to six feet deep, and weigh up to a ton. The main strength of the nest comes from the large branches that are intertwined to make the nest strong and resilient. The inside of the nest is lined with grass and cattails, or any number of local vegetation that will assure a comfortable home for the brood.
I was invited to Big Lake by Wildlife Technician Aaron Mize to see the growth and progress of this year's juveniles that call Big Lake home. We were joined by Jimmy Brooks, law enforcement officer for the Arkansas Game and Fish.
As we neared the point where the large nest resides, in a fork, high atop a cypress tree, I noticed the mating pair was sitting around the perimeter of the cypress trees near the nest, likely fishing for the young eaglets. We were greeted with the loud screams of the parents as they took flight and flew around the nest in a guarding manor. I was impressed with the visual and audible display going on in front of me.
Bald Eagles are Sea Eagles or Fish Eagles, and are very efficient at catching fish. The fact that they have nested here on Big Lake assures there will be plenty of fish for the taking. Their eyes are so good, biologists report they can see a fish surface from over two miles away.
As they fish, they soar over the lake watching for shallow fish that can easily be plucked from the water. They descend to the surface of the water with lightning speed, using their talons to rip the unsuspecting fish from the water. Their four inch long talons assure that whatever they catch does not escape. They will, during winter months, feed on small mammals and birds, and have been known to eat carrion. Aaron Mize witnessed a Bald Eagle earlier this year, eating a Mallard hen during the migration.
As I peered up into the giant nest, I couldn't help but notice the young juvenile Bald Eagles had already started losing their secondary down and started gaining their juvenile plumage, which is far less beautiful than that of their parents, and is a dark grayish-brown color, similar to that of the adult Golden Eagle.
They have been growing at a rapid rate, and I estimate their size to be about half of their parents. One of the juveniles showed confidence as it stood at the nest edge, watching us, watching it. The other stayed in a seated position further in the nest, and did not wish to cooperate with the cameras. You could still make out the silhouette of its head against the sky.
It is not known if this is the same pair of eagles that have nested here in years past, but it is likely. Bald Eagles of Arkansas seldom migrate, especially once they have found a life long mate. Immature Bald Eagles do migrate sporadically, and only short distances from October until about March, and usually end up residing within one hundred miles of their parents.
We know for now they are safe, and very healthy. Soon they will be facing the wind, and jumping and beating their wings to make them strong enough for their inaugural flight. Within the next four to six weeks the juveniles will take flight, and begin to learn to hunt and fish.
So grab a pair of binoculars and head to Timm's Point, look to the east to the cypress point that sticks out into the big opening, maybe you will be lucky enough to catch the inaugural flight of these two majestic eagles.