Smitty (left) and the Bella (right) making nest repairs in January, before Bella was ousted by the new female.
They were all set to start a family. The nursery was almost ready. Then one day everything changed when a young stranger appeared. Is this the trailer for a new soap opera? No, it’s part of the drama that’s unfolded over the past month keeping viewers tuned in to the live camera feed at the Shepherdstown eagle nest.
This camera (Eagle Cam|Outdoor Channel) is trained full time on an eagle nest on the west side of the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) campus near Shepherdstown. The nest rests high in a tall sycamore tree about ¼ mile from the Potomac River. A young pair of bald eagles built the nest in 2002 and it’s remained active since then. The NCTC mounted a camera on a branch above the nest that first went live in 2006 and has delighted viewers every year.
Over the years the old tree has suffered storm damage to its upper branches, but it has survived. As successive pairs of eagles have added new sticks and grass to the nest each year, it has steadily gained size and weight. The nest is now larger than a Volkswagen beetle.
Last December the current pair of eagles, nicknamed Bella and Smitty, started bringing large sticks to reinforce the nest rim and dry grass and other soft material for the lining and nest cup. As the new year began, they spent more and more time at the nest, rearranging and sometimes squabbling over stick placement. The nesting season seemed off to a good start until a new female eagle attacked and tried to land on the nest on January 31. The next day Bella, the resident female, was back at the nest. Fresh blood showed in several places on her head and neck, as if she was in a fight. She hasn’t been seen since.
Now in mid-February, the new female and Smitty are behaving like an old, mated pair. He brings fish to the nest for her to eat. They vocalize to each other and mate frequently. The new female’s central tail feathers show black markings, indicating she is evidently a younger bird. It usually takes four or five years for a young eagle’s head and tail feathers to become completely white.
UPDATE: On February 18 Bella returned to the nest, apparently having fought off the new arrival.
Viewers watching the eagle nest cam can chat and post comments at the site. Watching nature on a live camera in real time isn’t like watching a nature show on television. Anything can happen at any time and folks often get emotional about it. Even seasoned viewers may risk becoming attached to the eagles as individuals, which makes unpleasant events very upsetting.
But this is normal eagle behavior. During the early nesting season bald eagles compete fiercely for prime nesting sites. As their numbers increase, bald eagles are raising more young birds each year. When these young eagles reach breeding age, nest competition is a good thing. Hard as it is to watch, any eagle that can’t protect its nest from intruders is unlikely to be a successful parent.
First thing in the morning, my wife and I spend a few minutes checking in on our favorite nests. Dozens of such live cameras are set up throughout the country. Most of them operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Find out where they are on Facebook (@BaldEagles101).
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer