One Way Or Another

By Eilene Lyon

My partner and I sat in the Bass Tracker on the calm waters of Saguaro Lake – actually an impoundment of the Salt River near Scottsdale, Arizona – scanning the skies. In this narrow section, a sheer cliff rose ahead of us, and hills on both sides. Suddenly, a bald eagle bolted like a spear from above, aiming for an American coot, placidly oblivious to its impending doom.

The male eagle clutched his prize on top of a lakeside boulder. Soon his vice-grip beak was flinging feathers like a pillow fight gone bad, working his way to a fowl meal. After getting his fill, he seized the carcass and flapped off the rock until he’d achieved some height. Surely, we thought, he’d take it to the nearby cliff nest where the female and their nestling waited.

But no. Once again, as he’d done for months, he ignored them and flew away out of sight. Dang! What a deadbeat dad that bird turned out to be.

Observation point for Nest One. (E. Lyon 2009)

Before taking on this contract job to observe breeding eagles for Arizona Game and Fish (AGF), all nest watchers had to read up on bald eagle behavior. The standard story is that pairs mate for life, and both adults share responsibility for nest construction, incubation, and rearing the clutch of one to three nestlings. Once they’ve fledged, the parents spend roughly ten weeks teaching them to hunt before they become independent.

Sounds great in theory, but every animal, human or otherwise, has its own personality and quirks. With our domestic animal companions, we see that readily. It’s true in the wild as well. We tend to think: a mouse is a mouse is a mouse; a bear is a bear is a bear. We expect eagles will behave a certain way – then they don’t.

We started off with one assigned nest, which is the norm, but we discovered a second nest on our first trip out with our supervisor. AGF asked us to check on it, too. The first nest had been observed in previous years.

The rock outcrop right of center is the location of Nest Two. (E. Lyon 2009)
Can you spot the eagle nest?

For some reason, this year the male decided not to participate in the breeding process once the egg(s) were fertilized. We watched as the female took sole responsibility for incubating. When hungry, she had to fly off and procure her own food. She selected a perch on a low cliff until she spotted a fish. She would nail her quarry on the first try nearly every time.

Her mate, on the other hand, lacked that skill. Every time we saw him dive for a fish, he got wet, not dinner. Sitting ducks were more his speed. AGF informed us that it can take five years for an eagle to learn to fish. But maybe it takes longer, or dare I say, never?

See, it really does snow in southern Arizona! (E. Lyon 2009)

At our nest observation point one day, amazingly, it began snowing. Hard. Mrs. Eagle had flown off to hunt and was gone so long we reported it to HQ. They told us the eggs would no longer be viable in those conditions. We should switch over to observing Nest Two.

There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. This eagle pair was in love. They did everything together, even…you know. By the way, it happens so fast that you really better not blink. Soon they had three voracious young to feed. Two is a better number.

In this AGF photo from an earlier year and different location you can see the third nestling is much less developed than the other two, and likely did not survive. (Courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department)

Females are larger than males and eggs hatch in the order they are laid. If the first to hatch is female, and the last is male, well, he is likely toast. Eventually there were only two nestlings left. All the while, both adults fulfilled their roles as responsible bird parents. They showed no favoritism. The strong survive.

On a whim, we decided to return to Nest One. To our pleasant surprise, we found that an egg had hatched and there was a nestling. We began dividing our time between the two nests. We even hiked up a canyon one day to check on a third nest.

Canyon hike to a third eagle nest. (E. Lyon 2009)
We had a number of problems with the bass boat. The oversized engine and low transom were definitely a bad combo! (E. Lyon 2009)

Papa Eagle at Nest One continued to ignore his mate and offspring, with one exception. An immature adult eagle appeared one day and tried to fly into the nest while Mama and Munchkin (as we called them) were in it. This bird may have been one of hers from a previous year, or maybe a young male looking for some action.

Either way, Mr. Eagle was having none of it. He came at the interloper in a full-on dive and knocked the juvie for a loop. The aerial combat went on for many minutes. Eventually the grappling, whirling pair disappeared beyond the hilltop.

We had many exciting moments amid endless hours of tedium during our four months of nest watching. Those hundreds of hours of eagle observation impressed one important lesson on us: When you’ve seen one, you haven’t seen them all.

Can you spot the bald eagle fledgling? (E. Lyon 2009)
“Good dad” with a fledgling on a hunting-lesson day. (E. Lyon 2009)

Feature image: Sunrise on Saguaro Lake. Our primary task was actually to record human activities on the lake to determine if they impacted eagles. As far as we could tell they didn’t. (E. Lyon 2009)

For more information: Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program

71 thoughts on “One Way Or Another

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  1. I have to show this to my son. He’s 14, and in the past year has developed a huge interest in ornithology. We keep waiting to see an eagle on our property (it wouldn’t be out of the question). So far, though, we’ve only identified just about every hawk you can imagine!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s really cool that your son is taking on an interest in birds. I’ve worked with a young man at the bird-banding station here who started at age 12. He has gone to various birding camps around the country and led bird tours for the Mesa Verde Birding Festival. It can be a lifelong fascination. My grandparents gave me my first bird book when I was 7. My aunt recently gave me the book “Feathers” by Thor Hanson. I’ll bet your son would enjoy it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You may also wish to consider Living Bird magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s a beautiful magazine with the latest science, but written for the general public.

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  2. Wow. What an awesome experience. And your observations about animal behavior are fascinating. I knew my cats and dogs all had their distinct personalities and quirks, but I wouldn’t have thought the same of an eagle!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It really was a cool job, but not easy. I’m getting a bit too soft for that kind of work. If I’ve gotten you thinking of wild animals a bit differently, then that was all I could hope for!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Such a delight! He got wet, not dinner. Love it.

    I think Our American Stories would enjoy having you tell this story. They produce them and they’re aired on radio stations across the country. (I also listen to individual ones online.) If you’re willing, I’d be glad to let them know.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. That was an amazing read Eilene! You had mentioned your job previously, and that they didn’t always follow the norm of expected behavior. If you don’t mind, can I provide a link to your blog at the end of my Eagle post? I’ll share this a fellow blogger who has always been on the hunt for them too.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Interesting! The moral of this story seems to be: as in the human world, there are good males and bad males, and if you’re a female and want to raise your children successfully, steer clear of the bad ones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was incredibly impressed that Mama raised a baby by herself. Once I saw a red-tailed hawk let its nestlings freeze to death after its mate disappeared (probably died). I don’t know if the surviving adult was male or female. When I was on the Arizona job, there was another nest where a female also raised her baby alone.

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      1. Thanks. I haven’t been out that way. There are quite a few breeding pairs in the area. The group doing the nestwatch was hoping to get them status as a subspecies.

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  6. Thanks for sharing….I enjoyed it. Spent 15 years in Arizona and many hours in Canyon Lake and Lake Pleasant areas. I miss the desert it is lovely but a bit too hot for me these days in the summer. Maybe someday I will be a snow bird ….We live on the shores of Lake Huron and we have many eagles here too. They are awesome to watch. What months do they nest in Arizona? In Michigan, its is of course the summer months.

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    1. The Sonoran desert (like all deserts) has come to hold special appeal to me. The Mojave is my favorite so far, but those saguaros are really something. It’s amazing what we can learn about animal personalities when we care enough to watch them so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating … and I had no clue about much of this. This year in Alabama, we did see a nest with eaglets. OH – there is an eagle who stops by the golf course where I work near home. Usually Nov-March. One day I did see a successful catch out of the lake. Many thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is a wonderful story. I’ve never thought about how birds have differing personalities even if they are the same breed. What an incredible experience to have seen these eagles in the wild. There aren’t any eagles around here, but if you want to watch robins… well this is the place for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting post – a fellow blogger (Joni) sent me here and I am going to share this post with a wildlife photographer whose blog is filled with eagles, many of whom he has known and photographed for over three decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Linda! Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share. The birds are majestic and quirky. Love them all. You’ll have to share a link to your friend’s photos here. I don’t have the equipment or talent to take great bird pics.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Eilene – I have several birds on my “birdie bucket list” to photograph on my walks … eagles and owls and I’m not picky. 🙂 I should have thought to share Wayne (Tofino Photography)’s blog site, but I did send him this post right away and I see you two have communicated. Wayne has some amazing eagle photos. I do not have that type of equipment either. My blog is really about walking and has morphed more into a nature blog since I’ve gone to bigger parks and see more there. Fellow blogger Joni and I were both looking to photograph eagles in our walks. Wayne knows all the eagles and has named them and they know him. He mentioned “The Daredevil” (one of his eagle friends): https://tofinophotography.wordpress.com/2021/04/04/the-daredevil-56/
        Another eagle is “Romeo” which is here in silhouette: https://tofinophotography.wordpress.com/2021/04/04/going-going-gone-4/

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for sharing a couple links to Wayne’s eagle friends. His photos are wonderful. I will check out your site, too. I enjoy all kinds of nature writing and photography.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You’re welcome Eilene. Wayne has only seen one bear this Spring, but hopefully he will be posting shots of this year’s cubs, which are always very cute. He has one bear in particular that he has interacted with for many years and she does not make a fuss when he takes photos of her cubs. I started out just writing about walking, but more and more it has morphed into a nature blog. Who does not enjoy nature?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Me neither. I have spent more time wandering around parks and enjoying nature the last eight years since I discovered Council Point Park which is a mile from my home. I started working from home so had an opportunity to be out and enjoy nature every morning. I am going to write about that in my post on Monday. Thank you for following my blog Eilene.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I am looking forward to Summer and the chance for more hikes too. I would love to live in the country. The houses in the neighborhood are very close together and crime is getting worse every year.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. When I first saw your boat I said “Oh Oh”! Low gunnels are bad. I use a Zodiac RIB to go visit my eagle friends.
    I agree that they and all animals have unique personalities. I get to know my animal friends over the years and each is different!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a lovely post, Eilene. I am usually entertained here by your ancestry stories, and was surprised, and delighted, to read about your and your partner’s eagle stories. I appreciated being along on the adventures with you, watching the nests and activity, encountering anomalies in the father’s behavior, facing difficulties with the boat. That boat has water flooding in…egad! It is really great fun to watch an eagle nail its prey, and to watch them raising their young. But it’s not for everyone because, as you so beautifully articulated it: “We had many exciting moments amid endless hours of tedium during our four months of nest watching.” Also great here: those gorgeous saguaros wherever you look. Thanks for sharing this fantastic adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being in the lake really added a lot to that job. Though the boat and I had our grievances. I think I’ll have to do another post just to share more photos, including a flowering saguaro or two. Glad you enjoyed the story.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This was such an engaging read! It’s funny how the Eagle behaviour and relationships mimics what we see in human behaviour. You really brought that to light!
    I don’t know why but this didn’t show up in my reader. I’m so glad I popped over to see if I was missing something.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was so happy when I read that you returned to the first nest and found a nestling; single mama eagle, you go girl! I never thought of wild animals having personalities, but it makes sense, since life in the wild is so challenging and ever changing, so cookie-cutter animals would have a low chance of survival.

    Liked by 1 person

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