Pictured: The male (left) and female bald eagles “chortling” with each other at Lake Casitas. Photo by Judy Spaar-Hillewaert.
by Kimberly Rivers
When two untagged, wild-born bald eagles coupled and built their nest near Lake Casitas in 2009-10, they became the first nesting pair in the Ojai Valley in 100 years. It took the couple until 2013 to mature and become successful parents, hatching chicks every spring.
Since they were first spotted, local eagle enthusiasts have formed an ad hoc citizen scientist group dedicated to tracking the birds’ annual milestones, making sure key behaviors and events such as mating, hatching and caring for young are observed, documented, captured in photos and videos and shared with the public.
Bald eagles technically mate for life. But for the resident male at Lake Casitas, life has taken some unexpected turns. Over the past few weeks, the events that unfolded at his nest have astounded members of the Facebook group, Lake Casitas Eagles, and become a source of joy and hope sorely needed at this time.
The 2015 season was progressing well with two hatchlings in the nest. Mom and dad alternated between protecting the nest and hunting, bringing food (mostly fish from the lake) back to the hungry and growing chicks. Then on April 1, an intruder arrived.
A female known as “Joy,” tagged K-97 by the Institute for Wildlife Studies when she was a fledgling at a nest on Catalina Island, appeared at the lake. No one witnessed the presumed conflict between the nesting female and K-97, but Ojai photographer John Hannah captured photographs of the original female with a punctured eye and injuries to her head and beak. The original female left the nest, and was last seen in the Ojai Valley area on April 6, 2015. Due to the injuries visible in the photographs, she is presumed to have perished.
K-97 seized the chance to get into the nest when, after a few days, the male had to leave to hunt for the two eaglets and feed himself. K-97 is believed to have disposed of the chicks. One of them was found dead at the bottom of the tree; video footage appears to show K-97 killing the second.
Ultimately K-97 would win over the male, and they would eventually bond and successfully hatch chicks the following spring, and every year since.
A drama unfolds
On March 23 of this year, a female, tagged A-54, appeared and fought with Joy (K-97).
“We saw [Joy] for the last time [at the nest] on March 24,” said Judy Spaar-Hillewaert, a longtime eagle observer. She formed a Facebook group, Lake Casitas Eagles, in 2013 to help educate the public. “The intruder, A-54, was trying desperately to get into the nest. The male was attacking her. It was very stressful for a few days.”
K-97 was then seen grounded and injured on the banks of Lake Casitas. She was successfully rescued and transported to the Ojai Raptor Center, but passed a few days later from her injuries.
“In terms of eagle observation, [March 28] was certainly the most chaotic day I have experienced,” said Robert Massey of Ojai, a professional photographer with the watcher group. He recounted the events on Facebook (used with permission).
“In the morning we were watching A-54, the marauding female, and her unrelenting interest in the nest. We feared the complete destruction of any offspring and perhaps damage to our male, who was intent on protecting the nest.”
But then, the bird vanished. “March 28 around 1 p.m. was the last time A-54 was observed,” said Spaar-Hillewaert.
Incredibly, a second untagged intruder arrived. “At 4 p.m. that same day, this female [the second] came into the picture.”
Generally, says Spaar-Hillewaert, “there are males that come in and try to take over nests, too,” but “a lot of females do the intruding. It is surprising we haven’t observed a male come in. Maybe it’s happening but we haven’t seen it.”
Massey recounts that later that evening, another member of their group, Dave Schaar, confirmed this other young eagle was in fact a “second interloping female. Indeed, it was the first sighting of our Hannah.” (The new female was named after group member John Hannah; see sidebar.)
“Hannah [the second female] is 4 years old. We know she is 4 because of her plumage. She still has some dark streaks on her head and tail,” explained Spaar-Hillewaert.
On March 28, Hannah was seen trying to get into the nest. The male “wouldn’t let her in. He attacked her but she never attacked him. She only defended herself.” Video footage taken by Spaar-Hillewaert shows them attached by their talons, spiraling in the air.
Based on the male’s behavior, the group believes the egg hatched on March 27. “The male was desperately trying to leave to hunt,” Spaar-Hillewaert said, adding that he left 15 times during the morning of the March 28. “That’s when you know you’ve got a hatch. When [eagles] start bringing food to the nest.”
Between March 28 and April 1, Hannah doggedly tried to get into the nest, still refraining from attacking the male. She would perch next to the male, even fly off with him. When he would leave the nest to hunt, the group held their breath, thinking that at any time the interloping female would kill the newly hatched chick to take over the nest.
As the sun set on April 1, Dad was in the nest with the chick while Hannah perched nearby.
“On April 2, I got there very early with Simon, it was dark at that time,” said Spaar-Hillewaert. Simon Arambula is a new watcher in the group. Both of them had equipment that shows heat signatures or thermal imaging and they detected three bodies in the nest. At first Spaar-Hillewaert thought they had made a mistake and there were two eaglets, but then they realized it was a second adult in the nest.
“There were two adult eagles in the nest. We noticed Hannah was in the nest. They were acting like old buddies, eating together,” said Spaar-Hillewaert. “At some point he let her in. Typically the intruder will kill the babies. It is a miracle that Hannah was in the nest. She’s basically fostering the chick. Feeding it, bringing food to the nest, acting like this is her child. April 2 was a miracle at the nest. I didn’t expect that.”
“They are a pair, chortling, talking to each other,” Spaar-Hillewaert continued. She said that the two are engaged in a parenting behavior called “nest exchanges, one leaves the other comes in.” They will bring in nesting material, and actually “fight about where it goes in the nest.”
About how often an intruder will adopt and start caring for eaglets in the nest Spaar-Hillewaert said, “It is extremely, extremely rare. I’ve talked to some specialists and biologists, it has not been documented before because they don’t see it; it is a fluke.”
“We are starting to see a lot more of the baby,” said Spaar-Hillewaert. “The adults are doing some fun things. Breaking branches on the fly, off of trees. Breaking bark off. Behavior we don’t usually get to see. There is a lot of action . . . they are bonding, doing what bonded pairs do.”
She explained that the pair is unlikely to actually mate this year because the male won’t be motivated to do that as he currently has a chick.
Life at the nest
Over the next week, the eaglet’s pin feathers, also called blood feathers, will come in, which will become its flight feathers. This developmental step requires a lot of energy so “[eaglets] will be eating a lot.” Then the tail feathers come in. There will be a lot of “preening, scratching and itching.”
“We can’t contain our excitement when he’s being fed,” said Arambula about spotting the eaglet. “A few occasional baby voice tones come out of all of us during his appearances.”
Right now the baby is becoming more visible. The small, fluffy, grey head pops up over the edge of the nest. The eaglet is called “Bundle of Joy” in homage to its mother.
“Adults are bringing a lot of what we call crib rails,” Spaar-Hillewaert said, explaining that the branches are used to build up the sides to prevent more mobile chicks from falling out. “They don’t have the strength in their legs yet . . . at three weeks they are about one foot long from beak to tail.” Eaglets start walking on their leg bones above the ankle. “We call it walking on their hocks. At six weeks they stand up on their feet. Until then they scoot around in the nest using their wings like arms.”
At about 12 weeks they try to start flying. “Typically at our nest it is usually around 13 weeks, it’s not an easy tree,” said Spaar-Hillewaert.
“It all started with the Channel Islands nest cam in 2008,” said Spaar-Hillewaert of her initial interest in eagles. She said she was sent a link to the live streaming footage of the camera on the Pelican Harbor nest site on Santa Cruz Island. “The babies were just hatching.”
She got involved in monitoring other nests around the country, hungry to learn more about these majestic birds.
“They move my soul. They are so regal, so majestic and beautiful,” she said. “They are the top of the food chain. The way they interact with each other, their instincts, how they interact without speaking.” She created the Lake Casitas Eagles Facebook page in 2013. She also helps document owls in the nest at the Ojai Meadows Preserve. “I usually do both, but this year has been different.”
“If you follow the story on Facebook, you learn there’s sadness and happiness with a fairytale theme in progress,” said Arambula. As a newer member of the group, he has enjoyed the people as well as the eagles he observes and photographs. “I’ve made new friends, learned new things and found peace in a fast-paced world that can’t stand still. Just like the new eagle, Hannah, being accepted into the nest as a family member.”
“They live by instinct,” Spaar-Hillewaert added. “There is something really beautiful to learn that as humans we sometimes think way too much, it gets in the way. [Eagles] do go through a mourning period if they lose a chick or a mate. It is very subtle, but I’ve seen it. You have to be really in tune to the eagles to connect with that. It’s a very different way of mourning than what a human does. They just go on with life, don’t let it get in the way of functioning and living and taking care of business and doing what they do.”
She keeps a detailed log with photographs and video of all the observations at the nest. “I’m in the process of getting it all edited. We cover the nest as best as we can. I’ve been at the nest from 6 a.m. until someone can come by and relieve me” since the egg was laid. “I’ve learned so much about nature through studying eagles. It amazes me.”
“I enjoy photographing the eagle family because they are a symbol of hope and a beacon of strength,” expressed Arambula. “They own the sky, a place every living human has at one point wished to be able to do, fly high in the sky to escape it all.”
To see more photos, video and “edu-bits” visit Lake Casitas Eagles on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LakeCasitasEaglesOjai/