For a while this spring, it looked like a pair of bald eagles might raise a family in my Turnagain neighborhood, an exciting possibility. The eagles spent weeks building an impressively large nest, hauling branches and placing them atop a spruce tree just a few backyards away from my home.
Word spread quickly, and people began visiting my street and a nearby alley to watch the eagles. But it wasn’t long after they had settled in that the eagles abandoned their nest. Word had also spread to other avian species, which didn’t take kindly to the eagles moving in. Magpies and gulls especially harassed the eagles, raising a racket and dive-bombing the nest, which may have been too open to the sky above, too vulnerable to detection and harassment.
Whatever the reasons, the eagles left the nest behind, perhaps a frustration to them and also a disappointment to many people who’d hoped to watch the nesting and rearing process, in a residential neighborhood of all things.
The eagles’ presence near my home got me thinking about another nesting effort I once watched, off and on, for nearly an entire season, that one successful in producing two fledgling birds.
A friend had introduced me to the nest, in the woods behind Potter Marsh. Eagles had built a huge mound of branches, twigs, and grasses, all piled several feet deep inside the crook of an old, furrowed cottonwood.
In Alaska, female eagles tend to lay their eggs (usually two, but occasionally three) in April or May and the chicks hatch about a month later, weighing only a few ounces. The ones that I observed that year had hatched in mid-May, other observers told me.
I didn’t make it to the cottonwood until May 23. When I arrived, one of the adult eagles was perched on a branch to the right of the nest, but I could see no activity in the nest itself.
Scanning it through binoculars, I finally noticed a small shapeless pile of gray down nearly hidden among the branches. After a few minutes, the downy form shifted slightly; then a small, stubby wing appeared, followed by a gray fuzzy head attached to a long, thin neck.
Opening its short, charcoal beak, the eaglet squeaked softly in a high-pitched voice, much like the whine of a begging dog. The parent turned its head but otherwise remained still, in place.
A half-hour later, a second adult flew in, clutching a small fish, perhaps a salmon smolt, in its talons. Landing in the nest—now occupied by two squirming, squealing balls of gray, beaked fuzz—the eagle dropped the fish and immediately took off, in search of more food. The remaining parent hopped from its branch perch into the nest and began tearing at the fish. Bit by bit, it fed the eaglets, their necks stretched high, mouths agape and whining loudly.
After the feeding, the adult eagle picked at other body parts cached in the nest. I could make out a large, dark wing and webbed foot—the remains of a Canada goose, it appeared. Others who watched the nest reported meals of duck, gull, muskrat, and even a small beaver.
Their feeding over, the eaglets again sprawled out in the nest, while the adult turned its attention outward, toward the marsh and coastal flats that stretch west of the cottonwood. A few minutes later, the eagle lifted off, to join its mate in the hunt.
Over the next seven weeks, I returned to the nest every few days, a dozen times in all; sometimes in the morning, other times in the afternoon or evening. Usually, I had the forest to myself. But I also met several people who’d come to see the eagles: professional and amateur photographers, wildlife biologists, folks who lived in the neighborhood, and people from out of state who’d learned about this nest. All were curious—and from what I could tell, delighted—to see the eaglets. A few, like me, were tracking their growth, their behavior, and their move toward fledging.
More often than not, there was little “action.” The eaglets often napped and their parents, if present, perched and watched and waited with great patience.
Most visitors stayed only briefly when things were slow (not the serious photographers, of course), but I enjoyed the intervals of quiet as well as the spurts of activity. Although most interested in the eagle family, I also paid attention to other inhabitants of the forest and adjacent wetlands during my one- to two-hour stays. By drawing me to their nest, the eagles afforded me the opportunity to sit awhile in the woods, to notice the sounds and smells, the diurnal and seasonal changes.
Crouched among spruce and birch and alder, I breathed in the springtime scent of cottonwood oils and, later, the sweet fragrance of blooming wild rose bushes. I listened to the chatter of chickadees, the squawk of magpies, the fluty melodies of thrushes; the noisy drone of planes and the distant hum of highway traffic, the rumble of trains; the soothing rush of wind through leaves and needles, and the distant cry of gulls.
I watched swallows loop and dive, midges and gnats dance wildly in the air, and a bull moose step through marsh sedges. And I felt a great contrast with the stream of cars that rushed down the highway, hurrying to and from work, to and from vacation destinations. Such a treat, to simply be still and unhurried for an hour or two.
The eaglets grew rapidly. By mid-June, though still mostly down, they had grown some dark brown feathers and already had large, fierce beaks. By June 24, the eaglets’ heads, bodies, and wings were mostly brown; their eyes remained dark, in vivid contrast with the adults’ pale yellow irises, and their beaks were dark gray. They were large birds now, already weighing several pounds and, with a wingspread of several feet, approaching adults in size.
Their parents gone, the eaglets sprawled in the bottom of the nest for most of an hour. Finally, one stood and opened its wings wide. Turning into a stiff wind, the bird flapped vigorously while bouncing up and down. The gesture seemed both playful and desirous as if the young eagle wanted to lift off, embrace and ride the wind to soar with its parents. The wind gusted harder, as if teasing the bird, beckoning it to fly.
I visited the nest four times in early July, the last time on the ninth. Only once during those visits did I see an adult eagle around the cottonwood; and it didn’t stick around long before waddling to the edge of the nest, dropping off, and gliding out of sight. The eaglets napped for most of the two hours that I watched, though one briefly engaged in the flapping, hopping ritual. A few days later I left Alaska to visit family, a trip planned months earlier.
By the time I returned to that patch of woods in mid-August, much had changed. Early summer’s bone-dry forest floor was now soggy with moisture.
Fireweed was blooming, rose hips turning from orange to red, and scarlet elderberries and Devil’s club berries brightened the forest. With one exception—a ruby-crowned kinglet—the woodland birds I heard and watched were year-round locals: a flock of black-capped chickadees, a magpie, a downy woodpecker. Down in the marsh flats, salmon circled in slow-moving channels of glassy water and sedges showed a tinge of yellow.
The eagle nest was empty, but I’d been told that eaglets may return, off and on, for several weeks after their initial abandonment of the nest. I knew it was unlikely I would see them again in this aerie, but I stayed a while to watch and listen, as I’d always done when visiting the nest, finally leaving when a light drizzle becomes a heavy downpour.
Before departing, I noticed three eagles in the distance, two of them juveniles, gliding above the coastal flats, their great wings beating slowly and heavily in the deepening rain.
Returning briefly to this summer, I’ll note that two adult eagles—presumably the ones who attempted to nest here—have occasionally been spotted around the neighborhood, sometimes perched in trees not far from the spruce with the abandoned nest.
I can’t help but wonder what draws them back. A kind of longing? A continued connection to this place? I wonder too whether these might have been first-time nesters. Perhaps they’re considering what they might do differently, whether they should have given up. Maybe we’ll see them again next year, trying again.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.