Bald Eagle Family and Me

AlistairLast Updated On: Gallery, recent-updated

Every year this bald eagle pair returns to Central Florida to breed. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma blew down the tree with the old nest in it, but both eagles have been busy and have built a new nest in a tree not far away.

This is their story.

Watching the bald eagle grow from a tiny, grey fluffy chick into a flying adult has been an amazing experience, and I feel very privileged to have watched it. Visiting the nest each week, I have also learned so much about the characters of each eagle.

I decided on the article title; Bald Eagle Family and Me, an alternative could have been ‘The Central Florida Squirrel Massacre!’ due to the number of squirrels the parents caught and then dismembered. Consider yourselves warned. 🙂

The tree is 77 yards from my regular shooting position, and the nest is 66 feet up in the tree.

16 December 2017

Nest building is now complete. The female is on the left, the male on the right. How to tell them apart? The female is larger than the male, the tip of her beak curves slightly inwards, the male’s does not.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

31 December 2017

The female returning to the nest – probably because I arrived and set up a big super telephoto lens on a tripod pointed in their direction.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

The female bald eagle is definitely on an egg and staring at me constantly!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

 7 January 2018

Rare to get a shot of both the adult eagles so close together – female on the right, male on the left. Remember what I wrote about the tip of her beak curving slightly inward?

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

11 January 2018

It had rained all night and the conditions this morning weren’t ideal for photography, but after I had got my tripod set up, the first thing I saw was the tiny head of a bald eagle chick staring right back at me! Amazing! I am guessing about 1 week old.

As I was moving to higher ground, the male arrived with a squirrel in his talons. Talk about repositioning at the wrong moment, but this is the nature of wildlife photography! There will be many more opportunities for this type of shot as the chick will have a voracious appetite until it fledges and eventually leaves the nest.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

15 January 2018

Mother and chick were very active this afternoon, the chick ripping small pieces of meat from the carcass in the nest. Even though it has been 4 days since the last visit, the chick seems bigger, the feathers have a much deeper grey color and the tiny beak looks more defined. Perfect light and blue sky today. Can’t help but smile seeing the mother and chick so close together!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Better out of the nest than in!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

24 January 2018

First wing flap. Usually, I wouldn’t post this as the bald eagle chick is facing away from the camera. It was just so beautiful to see; I have to share! What a change in only 9 days!Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

27 January 2018

The light conditions were very changeable today with the sun popping in and out of the clouds. The eaglet was crying for food, and the mother eagle was obviously out hunting. Just as she did return with a fish in her talons, light levels crashed – typical! Great to see her feeding her chick.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

3 February 2018

They say light and patience are a photographer’s best friends. I don’t know who they are but they are right! This afternoon the light, or lack of it, was my enemy. Still, in the interests of documentation, this is my only keeper. All of the fish and tree rats (squirrels) that the parents catch are obviously going to good use as the eaglet is growing rapidly and looks very healthy.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

5 February 2018

After days of poor light, finally, blue skies and sunshine!

I can fly!! Truly fantastic to watch. After today I also think that the chick is female as I can see the beginnings of an inward beak curve.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

6 February 2018

Today the male was out hunting and soon returned with what I can only guess was a large part of some large animal’s intestine. The female immediately jumped on it, fed a few small chunks to the chick and then proceeded to wolf the whole thing down herself!

The only problem was a small section of the intestine looped itself over her lower beak, and she just couldn’t swallow it. I really thought I was watching a bald eagle choke to death. She tried to bring part of it up, the eaglet then grabbed the other end and it was a tug-of-war. After flying to a nearby branch and rubbing the side of her beak against the branch, she managed to get it down.

It was a challenge to maintain proper long lens technique when laughing so much!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

11 February 2018

The male bringing in a tasty squirrel for breakfast, quite a large one by the look of it.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

14 February 2018

No longer a chick, this is a young eagle now. Complete with the imperious look that all adult bald eagles have.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

24 February 2018

Lots of wing flapping today and I am positive at one point the eaglet was airborne for a moment! The downdraft from the wings lifted all kinds of feathers, fluff and other light detritus up from the bottom of the nest!

Finally an opportunity to get a burst of shots of the male eagle bringing in another freshly caught squirrel in his talons.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

1 March 2018

Photographing the juvenile eagle this afternoon made me hungry! The father had caught a duck, stopped along the way to eat half of it, then returned to the nest. The eaglet went berzerk, ripping off large pieces of the succulent red meat and then getting them stuck on its beak. She even ripped off a flipper, with sinew and bone still attached, tried to swallow it and didn’t understand why it wouldn’t go down. The father had to intervene, gently pull the flipper out of its beak, reorient it in his beak and feed it back at the correct angle.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

4 March 2018

The juvenile was up and about by the time I arrived. At first, it started tidying up the nest before doing to practice takeoffs and then hovers.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Father then arrived with a fresh squirrel. I love the look of hunger and delight on the infant.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

The juvenile quickly consumed the head (I guess it was the tastiest part!) then picked up the headless carcass and carried it to the other side of the nest for later. She is strong now.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

7 March 2018

Mother arrives with a mid-morning snack, a freshly caught fish which was eaten quickly.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

As the eagle gets bigger, so does the errr – you know what.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Then (somewhat lighter) some more flying practice using her legs to jump and then furious wing beating.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

10 March 2018

Usually, small animals are delivered from the left side of the nest, but today, that was where the juvenile was sleeping. The father had to approach and land at an unusual angle carrying (you guessed it) another squirrel.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

They then both grabbed the squirrel and started tearing at the meat.

See the squirrel paw hanging out of the juvenile’s beak.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Ever wondered what happened to the tails of the squirrels? To be honest, neither had I. Now we all know the answer!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

12 March 2018

Now starts the difficult time, the time when the youngster could fly away and leave the nest at any time. That realization makes me happy and sad at the same time. Walking down to the nest today I saw nothing; neither parent was in the tree – although that has become quite common over the past few weeks as squirrel supplies in the neighborhood must be at an all-time low! There was no telltale dark shape in the nest either, but after setting up my tripod and about 30 minutes of waiting, a wing was briefly visible over the edge of the nest. What a relief!

Soon after, the father arrived and perched high up in the tree. He began calling, and suddenly the youngster was standing up in the nest and wing beating hard. It was very windy today, and I could sense the nervousness in the young eagle. She did her best and managed to get about 6 inches above the nest but then sank back down, her talons once again on terra firma. She promptly lay down in the nest and fell asleep – I guess learning to fly is tiring!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

14 March 2018

Today the young eagle was completely down in the nest with only her head barely visible as she scanned the sky. She stayed motionless like that for over 45 minutes and then I heard a distant call from one of the parents. In an instant, the juvenile was standing up in the nest crying loudly.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Milliseconds later the mother arrived at maximum speed with a possum in her talons! It all happened so fast I was barely able to swing the lens to keep up with her as she flared her feathers for what looked like a very heavy landing. I am so glad I was using the Nikon D3x body today, no way would the D810 have focussed that fast!

This is one of my favorite images so far. Both the mother and youngster together in the same frame, a new kind of rodent for dinner, the spread wings of both eagles and catchlights in their eyes.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Next, the mother did something I have not seen before. The chick was going crazy trying to get at the carcass, and she merely covered the juvenile’s head with her tail feathers, and that seemed to soothe her as she consumed a few bites of the possum.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

16 March 2018

Today was the first time I have seen the eaglet out of the nest, although no actual flying. She appeared nervous the more she inched her way up the branch.

As I was packing up to leave, mother arrived with a very small squirrel. The eaglet immediately jumped on it but then seemed unsure of what to do next. I then realized something. Usually, food is delivered ‘open’, that is partially eaten by the adult, or ‘closed’ in which case the delivering adult helps the youngster ‘open’ it and then leaves her to it. Today, the mother simply dropped off the squirrel and then flew to a nearby branch and watched. The juvenile looked at her mother for many minutes as if asking for help. Perhaps instinct kicked in, but soon she ‘opened’ the squirrel and began eating.

A scratch or perhaps a cheeky wave to the camera!

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Some issues with balance the higher she got.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

17 March 2018

From a photographic perspective, it was a quiet Saturday. In a way, this was just as well because the light was very harsh. It is obvious that the eaglet was undergoing some intensive final training. Shortly after I arrived, the male flew to an outer branch, and the eaglet crab walked out onto the middle of the limb. The female then blocked the return route to the nest, and it was clear they wanted the juvenile out. Perhaps pushing her to fly or more likely getting her used to perching on a narrow branch. The family stayed like this for hours.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

18 March 2018

The young bald eagle seemed a little more confident today. Instead of wing beating in panic when there was a strong gust of wind, she leaned forward, ducked down a bit and spread her wings. Her strong, sharp talons held her in place on the branch, but it almost looked like she was enjoying the sensations of aerodynamic lift!

I think her maiden flight will be any day now.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

20 March 2018

It rained all of yesterday so it was impossible to visit the nest. This morning, despite a grey sky, I had to make a quick trip to see if the young eagle was still there. She was, although looking rather bedraggled after a wet night and a tornado watch all morning.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

21 March 2018

While clear skies have returned, I don’t think very windy conditions are ideal for the first flight. The wind didn’t stop the eaglet from venturing high up into the tree. Lovely feather display, almost like all air brakes and ground spoilers deployed.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.25 March 2018

Since the 21st of March, I have visited the nest at least once per day, waiting for this event – the maiden flight!

This morning I heard the eaglet crying loudly for food, but neither parent was around. Later she flapped her way up to one of the highest branches and after a short moment of hesitation took flight. She flew confidently, circling and climbing on the thermals. After about 5 minutes she returned to the nest in a shallow angle dive, landed neatly and promptly fell asleep.

Today also starts the clock on the unknown countdown to when she flies away for good, not something I am looking forward to. Still, I am smiling as there was always a chance I would have missed the opportunity to see her fly like this. The circles she flew in the sky were directly above me, in nearly all of the images it feels like she is looking right down at me. Spectacular and so special!

All these pictures were taken handheld at 700mm, f8, and c. 1/2000s.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.

Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida. Bald eagle family 2017, Apopka, Florida.28 March 2018

Since I first saw the young eagle fly, she seems to be doing a lot of it as most days the nest and tree are empty when I arrive. This afternoon the mother and daughter were in the nest, I waited for over 2 hours, but apart from a bit of sunbathing and wing flapping, nothing happened.

1 April 2018

I have not seen an eagle for 3 days, but despite this morning being very misty, I walked to the nest anyway. Leaving my camera gear at home, I took only my binoculars. The young eagle was just about visible through the heavy mist, perched high up in a pine tree.

I shall end this wonderful story now as both parents have left and the eaglet is hardly in the area anymore. It has been a fantastic adventure requiring lots of patience, but I have enjoyed it immensely.

Such an amazing transformation in 74 days.

I hope you enjoyed the story.

The end.

See the gallery to view the images in a lightbox slideshow.