Bald Eagles: Your Friendly Neighborhood Apex Predators

When I first came to Seattle from the East Coast in September of 2017, I didn’t pay much attention to birds. I was impressed by the plant life right away — abundant moss, sword ferns, Douglas firs, big leaf maples, and red cedars everywhere. (I also particularly enjoyed seeing monkey puzzle trees, but they’re non-native and Marie thinks they’re ugly). I called home one day in the fall of 2017 and told my parents about how different the trees are in Seattle compared to Maryland or Philadelphia. My parents asked me if I noticed any different animals, and I believe I said something like, “It’s basically nothing but crows and gulls here.”

It’s funny to look back at that conversation. I guess if you’re not looking you won’t see much. A few months later, in early 2018, I went for a run and was caught off guard when I saw these magnificent beasts in a cedar tree along the water next to Husky Stadium:

Bald eagles in a cedar tree by Husky Stadium, circa April 2018

I was blown away. I had only seen bald eagles a few times in my life, and here were two in a tree right next to campus! In the middle of Seattle! I saw the eagles again in the same tree on the way back at the end of my run. I took the picture above several days later, and over the ensuing weeks, I returned to the same area frequently, and I sometimes saw as many as four bald eagles there! As I learned more about eagles, I realized that I was seeing the same four bald eagles, and they all live — hunt, nest, raise chicks, and vie for territory — within a mile of that tree. They aren’t exotic visitors that were blown off course; hundreds of bald eagles live in Washington, several of which live with us in Seattle!

In the late 1700s, over 9,000 bald eagle pairs lived in Washington State, but by 1950, bald eagles had been virtually eradicated from the US outside of Florida and Alaska. The reasons for this dramatic near-extinction are complex, and include habitat loss, illegal shooting, and DDT. Bald eagles were subsequently placed on the endangered species list. It has taken a concerted effort and an electorate that is conscientious about local wildlife to bring those numbers up to where they are now: there were about 100 breeding pairs in Washington State in the 1970s and 840 by 2005 (see data here and here). Bald eagles are definitely not unique to Washington State. There are over 1000 pairs in Minnesota and Florida, and Maryland – my home state – has around 300 breeding pairs. My parents recently found a bald eagle nest site on the Potomac River just a few miles from my childhood home, and they later learned that this site has been known to host eagles since the 1980s. But here in Seattle, I can sometimes see soaring eagles from my apartment window.

Of the many breeding pairs that live in Seattle, three pairs of eagles live around Union Bay. Each pair has its own territory. Their nests make a triangle around the bay, with each side of the triangle being about 1 mile long. Larry Hubbell has names for all six of the eagles, and he’s written about Monty and Marsha’s troubles last year when their nest fell down after a branch in their cottonwood tree broke, as well as their success so far this year as they have rebuilt their nest and now have a newly-hatched eaglet. Their nest is about 1000 feet from where I took the photo above.

While Monty, Marsha, Talia, Russ, Eva, and Albert are the resident eagles, every once in a while, I’ll see some roving gangs passing through.

Five young bald eagles pass through resident eagles’ territory in the Washington Park Arboretum on February 1, 2020.

Young eagles have a mixture of white, brownish, and black feathers, and don’t attain their crisp white head feathers with a sharp border at the neck until they are about 5 years old. The mottling changes slowly over time, so the coloration can be used to estimate age. See how bald eagles change color over time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Normally, when a stranger eagle wanders into a nesting pair’s air space, they are met with hostility. Eagles are territorial, and the reason I kept seeing eagles right next to Husky Stadium is because this is the boundary between Monty and Marsha’s territory to the south and Talia and Russ’ territory to the north. The four eagles frequently perch in trees by the stadium to patrol their borders. When they do so, they often make a lot of noise — eagles have a peculiar, rather unintimidating call, which you can listen to here. I guess the other eagles must think it’s intimidating, though. Eagles tend to be especially aggressive toward out-of-towners, but when adolescent eagles show up in gangs (like the five drifters in the photo above), the residents can’t do much. You kids get off my lawn! Juvenile delinquents!

As I’ve watched these individual birds over time, they seem less like mindless animals that merely follow their instincts, and more like thinking, feeling creatures with goals and plans who can learn from their mistakes and invent strategies to solve their problems. Monty and Marsha, the newest eagle residents of the Union Bay area, have chosen an optimal nest location for hunting, but their proximity to the other eagles presents a challenge which they have met by regularly enforcing their territorial boundary with Talia and Russ. I’ve become interested in watching, learning about, and trying to understand their behaviors. These bald eagles sparked my fascination with the bird world, and I hope to share more about my other bird neighbors in future posts.

It’s springtime, and love is in the air. (I’m talking about avian mating season, of course).

My name is Nate Ennist, and I’m Marie’s boyfriend, subbing in to write a bird watching post on her gardening blog.  The day before yesterday, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, was my first osprey sighting of the year, and I was so excited I dropped everything and commandeered Marie’s blog so I could tell you about it.  Ospreys are birds of prey that eat mostly fish (fish are 99% of their diet, according to National Geographic), and they serve as a “sentinel species,” or a species that is an indicator of environmental health.

An osprey carries its fish facing forward to decrease drag.  (Image from All About Birds)

Ospreys in northern latitudes (like here in Seattle) migrate south in the winter.  They prefer to hunt where the water is warmer, because fish become less active and seek deeper water when the water is cold, but ospreys can only dive to a depth of 3-5 ft at the most.  (Also, ospreys can’t get to the fish if the water is frozen).  Ospreys may also migrate to seek more daylight hours for hunting or to avoid competition from other predators.

Despite being the Seattle NFL football team’s mascot (sort of—”seahawk” isn’t really a proper term; see this article in Smithsonian Magazine), 2016 was possibly the first time in 100 years that ospreys nested in the Union Bay area according to Larry Hubbell’s blog.  In the past few years, ospreys have returned to Seattle in mid-April after their southern migration.  Tuesday was April 14, and right on cue, I saw two ospreys in the skies above Northeast Seattle from my University District apartment window.  As is typical, they were trying to escape relentless pestering from crows.  What a way to welcome them back!

Crows don’t take kindly to birds of prey since they recognize them as predators, and crows are abundant in Seattle, to say the least.  Nearby Bothell has become known for its crow roosts numbering in the thousands.  Crows will often team up and squawk at and dive-bomb raptors, sometimes scratching or pecking at them and inflicting harm.  On the bright side, this makes it easier to find raptors—just look for a mob of angry crows!  Sometimes crows will even attack people, as Marie can tell you.  Last year, a crow attacked Marie’s head from behind as she was walking down the sidewalk and minding her own business.  Presumably the crow was trying to establish its territory near its nest.

Yesterday morning, April 15, I went out to see what the ospreys were up to.  I walked down to the Union Bay Natural Area, AKA the Montlake Fill, where two pairs of ospreys nested last year.  On the way there, while crossing the Husky Stadium parking lot, I looked up and saw an osprey carrying what looked like a fish!  It was quite high up, but through my binoculars, the fish appeared to be facing forward along the direction of the osprey’s flight; ospreys carry their prey this way to make them more aerodynamic. 

Ospreys frequently have their fish stolen by the larger bald eagles, three breeding pairs of which nest in the Union Bay area.  However, rather than quickly flying to a quiet place to devour its catch in peace, this osprey was soaring in circles as if showing off its prize.  After a couple minutes, I watched as it began to fly almost straight up and then swoop down repeatedly.  This is a well-known mating behavior in male ospreys, and it is often called a “sky-dance” or a “fish flight.”  See the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website for details here and here.  After a few minutes, the osprey flew back in the direction of one of the nests from last year and the year before.  Once it was out of sight, I took off running around the golf driving range to see if the ospreys had returned to same nesting site.  When I rounded the driving range and crossed the baseball fields, there they were, perched on top of the light posts just like last year.  One was sitting in the nest and the other was on a nearby light post.

Above are the ospreys on June 9, 2018.
Above is one of (presumably) the same ospreys this year (April 15, 2020), but in a much bigger nest, as you can see.

Normally after a fish flight, the male gives the fish to the female and she eats it.  If the exchange happened, I must have missed it as I was running around the driving range.  By the time I arrived at the nest, I couldn’t tell which was the male and which was the female, but one of them was eating the fish.

The other osprey eats the fish on a light post next to the post with the nest (April 15, 2020).

Once the fish was eaten, the well-fed osprey joined the other at the nest.

Ospreys together on the nest (April 15, 2020).

Don’t they make a cute couple?  Ospreys normally lay eggs between mid-April and late-May, so the female will likely lay eggs in the next few weeks.

They probably shouldn’t be nesting on top of a powerful baseball field light, but you try telling an osprey where to nest!  According to Larry Hubbell’s blog, the University of Washington Athletic Department did just that in 2016.  After two ospreys (who Larry christened Chester and Lacey) started to build a nest on a light post, UW installed an osprey platform in the Montlake Fill and dismantled the nest on the light.  Apparently, Chester and Lacey took the hint and built a new nest on the platform.  Now that there are two breeding pairs of ospreys, the problem has returned.  I guess they’ll have to build another platform?

The nesting platform in the Montlake Fill appeared to be empty as of yesterday.  I didn’t see any sign of Chester or Lacey in nearby trees or flying over Union Bay.  Maybe they haven’t returned to Seattle yet.  I hope to see them soon!

Chester and Lacey’s home sweet home awaits their return (April 15, 2020).

Update: This evening, April 16, I saw the two ospreys on the light post in the act of mating! They’re off to a great start, as long as no one disassembles their nest.