Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
The day a massive shadow loomed overhead was the first time that residents of Lake Emory knew bald eagles were hunting from their property. For a few years, a pair of eagles used a tree on their property as their hunting perch because it overlooks a shallow Lake Emory cove not too far from the dam. However, last year, the eagle parents built a nest and hatched and raised two eaglets. This year the eagle pair took up residence in the same nest and hatched another set of eaglets.
“One significant thing about the eagles nesting at Lake Emory is the fact that the nest is on private property – in a backyard,” said Chris Kelly, wildlife diversity biologist with Wildlife Diversity Program, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) in Asheville. “Until recently, the eagle nests in western North Carolina were mostly restricted to larger reservoirs and most were on public lands, such as U.S. Forest Service, National Park, etc. Eagles have been nesting on private land in other parts of the state for years, but this is a relatively new pattern in the mountains. The public land managers have been implementing protection measures around the nests on the lands they manage for years, so they know the ropes. But a private landowner with an eagle nest on their property may not be familiar with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines.
“The eagles nesting at Lake Emory struck gold when they selected that pine tree,” Kelly explaining that the property owners have taken measures to protect the area from disturbances.
This year, the first egg hatched on April 3, with the second egg hatching the next day. A few neighbors in the area have a periscope aimed at the five to six-foot circumference nest high at the top of a pine tree. The thickness of the nest is at least three feet, and the nest is regularly worked on, according to neighbors. Large and long branches, twigs, and grasses are added periodically. Nests can get up to eight feet wide and 20 feet deep, conveyed NCWRC.
“The neighbors have shared their observations with NCWRC, making it easy to track this pair’s nesting progress and any concerns that arise during the nesting season,” said Kelly.
One neighboring family has named the parents: America (Mary) and Bountiful (Bounty). The eagle parents take turns sitting on the clutch of eggs, and when neighbors noticed both parents looking down into the nest, they realized the eggs had hatched.
Kelly pointed out that there has been a surge in nests showing up on private property in the Western North Carolina mountains.
“The number of nesting pairs in WNC has been rising the past five years,” she said. “With most reservoirs occupied by at least one nesting pair, eagle nests are showing up along rivers or in trees a bit farther from the water’s edge.”
Although there are still relatively few eagles in the area, compared to other regions of the country, the uptick in their numbers is at least partly attributed to a 1983 reintroduction project begun by NCWRC biologists.
According to NCWRC, mature bald eagles weigh from 8 to 13 pounds, with the female visibly larger than the male. Wingspan is up to 8 feet across. It takes four to five years for the birds to achieve full adult plumage and coloring. And, “The bald eagle isn’t ‘’bald’; its name comes from the white feathers over the entire head.”
The reason for the eagles to nest near the water: “Opportunistic by nature, the eagle is fond of stealing food from ospreys and other birds, and it scavenges the shoreline for dead or dying fish, as well as plucking them live from the water.”
Currently, the two Lake Emory eaglets are the size of a large duck and are growing rapidly. Any day, they are expected to not only sit majestically on their nest and scan the horizon for their parents, who hunt for several hours every day, but they will begin flapping and jumping from limb to limb in preparation for their first flights.