Where eagles flirt: A Capitol tale of love, loss and raccoons

Via:  perrie-halpern  •  6 months ago  •  16 comments

Where eagles flirt: A Capitol tale of love, loss and raccoons
This year, Justice disappeared almost immediately after mating, leaving Liberty with no way to gather food while keeping the eggs warm.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

By Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It's a tale with everything you'd need for a soap opera: star-crossed lovers, a stable relationship threatened by younger suitors, pregnancy and loss, and a hungry raccoon.

Washingtonians, along with a global community of eagle-watchers, have been transfixed this winter by Liberty and Justice, bald eagles who've nested and raised eaglets together for 14 years on the grounds of the city's police academy.

Their annual mating ritual, egg-laying and hatching process normally draws thousands of viewers to a special eagle cam. But this year has been unusually dramatic, with twists and turns that became headline news outside the eagle-watcher community.

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," said Tommy Lawrence, managing director of the Earth Conservation Corps, which runs the eagle cam and has been instrumental in repopulating the local bald eagle community. "People kind of take ownership of the eagles and really become invested in their well-being."

The saga of Justice and Liberty isn't the capital's only eagle drama. Last Wednesday, the Blue Line of Washington's Metro was delayed to rescue an injured bald eagle from the tracks . The bird later had to be euthanized.

Another eagle cam at the National Arboretum, also has chronicled relationship tensions this year. Two eagles, known as Mr. President and The First Lady, experienced a comparatively mild relationship drama when another female showed up and tried to woo Mr. President. The interloper was chased off by The First Lady.

But the bigger drama involved Liberty, the female, and Justice.

Their mating season started normally. Together they prepared the nest they've shared for 14 years. They mated on Feb. 9. Normally at that point, Liberty would lay eggs — usually two — and spend most of her time sitting on them while they incubated and the male sought food for the family.

But this year, Justice disappeared almost immediately after mating, leaving Liberty with no way to gather food while keeping the eggs warm. During his absence a younger male eagle began appearing at the nest and courting Liberty. Researchers named him "Aaron Burrd" and speculated that he had fought Justice and driven him from the territory. A second young male rival also made some appearances.

After about 10 days, Liberty began making short flights away from the nest, meaning the temperature of the eggs dropped too low to hatch. On Feb. 23, Liberty flew away with one of her new suitors for two days, essentially abandoning her nonviable eggs. The next day, Justice reappeared after a more than two-week absence to reclaim his place. When Liberty returned, she didn't accept him back at first but gradually they reconciled.

Then came a final Darwinian twist. While the reunited pair was away from the nest, a raccoon climbed up and ate both eggs live on camera . Nothing was actually lost. The eggs were never going to hatch. But Lawrence said some newer eagle-cam devotees didn't fully understand what had happened.

"The reaction was intense," Lawrence said. "People would start freaking out on Facebook and asking why we didn't rescue the eggs and then some older members of the community would calm them down."

When interviewed Friday by The Associated Press, Lawrence announced breaking news: Justice and Liberty, after slowly rekindling their relationship, had mated the day before. Now the watch is on to see if Liberty is still fertile this late in the mating season and will lay more eggs. Justice, by the way, has continued his mysterious disappearances. On March 7, he vanished for five days before returning.

"We don't know where he keeps going," Lawrence said. "Our minds go to 'Does he have a second nest somewhere?' "

The twists and turns have been covered by multiple local media outlets with Kardashian-level of detail. Now speculation is running hot as to whether Justice and Liberty have a long-term future together or whether the younger suitors are a glimpse of the future.

"It does seem like there's all these young bucks out there looking for some action," Lawrence said.

If the aging Justice is going to face regular challenges from younger males going forward, Lawrence said he might discover that his mate is fiercely loyal — to the nest.

"The female will give up her mate before she gives up her nest," he said. "Liberty basically has the keys to the house and she decides who she lets in."

The cult-like following for the eagles is a testament to the wildly successful mid-1990s campaign to bring them back after they had died out locally in the late 1940s. Starting in 1994, the Earth Conservation Corps brought 16 new eagle hatchlings — four per year — from Wisconsin and raised them locally so they would develop an affinity for the area. Mature eagles leave the nest after four months to six months, and leave their home territory for several years, then frequently return to their home area to mate — "like going to college," Lawrence said.

Eagles generally live about 30 years, so that first batch of eaglets would be a middle-aged 25 now, but much of the now-healthy local bald eagle population is presumed to be the children and grandchildren of those first few hatchling batches.

Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist who is responsible for Mr. President and The First Lady, praised the following that has developed around both local eagle cams.

"The community is great! Some people are very involved and are watching all day. They really have an emotional investment in these birds," he said.

Rauch attributes the popularity to the comeback story, the eagle's status as America's national symbol, and the natural fierce magnetism of the winged predators.

"The bald eagle itself is a very charismatic animal," he said.

Lawrence said he has learned not to underestimate the power and devotion of the eagle-watcher community. He recalls last year when a special cable malfunctioned and knocked out the eagle cam. Lawrence put out an appeal on Facebook asking if any IT professionals could donate their time and take a look.

"Literally a few hours later I get a call from the people who lobby for Verizon saying, 'We've received a bunch of phone calls, including from two congresswomen, asking us to fix this,'" he said.


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Bob Nelson
1  Bob Nelson    6 months ago

Good seed. Thanks.

2  katrix    6 months ago

I had posted the original article about this back when Justice disappeared and the other males were courting Liberty.  The soap opera continues!  I was very surprised when he came back, and also that he is still disappearing at times.  If Liberty does lay more eggs, he'd better stop disappearing or they won't make it either.

We have another local eagle cam as well, and some people really do get upset when the wildlife folks don't intervene.  Mother nature can seem very cruel when you're watching.

2.1  cjcold  replied to  katrix @2    6 months ago

What I thought were hawks in my cottonwoods turned out to be eagles. These old eyes don't focus so well anymore. Been thinking about Lasik. Anybody have any experience with eye surgery?

2.1.1  1stwarrior  replied to  cjcold @2.1    6 months ago

Had lasik in '99 - vision still 20/15 - can't go wrong.

2.1.2  katrix  replied to  cjcold @2.1    6 months ago

I had it in 2000 ... vision still 20/20.  One of the best things I ever did.

2.1.3  Freefaller  replied to  cjcold @2.1    6 months ago

Had it done in 98, still 20/25 and 20/20.  Best money I ever spent.

3  cms5    6 months ago

Eagle cam watchers can be fanatical! I watched two nests years ago...one in Decorah, IA and the other in Norfolk, VA. The decorah nest had sound...the norfolk nest didn't - it was near the airport. Watching both nests...Norfolk eaglets were older than decorah...I learned quite a bit. Neither site 'named' the Bald Eagles, nor did they name the eaglets.

Tragedy struck the Norfolk nest...'mom' was hit and killed by a plane at the airport. 'Dad' was left to raise three eaglets that were not old enough to be left for long periods of hunting for food...they also weren't big enough to fend off predators. The Wildlife Center of Virginia stepped in and took the eaglets to raise them. We were devastated by the loss of 'mom' and then the eaglets. Fortunately, the Wildlife Center set up cams for us to watch them raise the eaglets. That blossomed into cams being placed all around the center for other animals in their care...including the cutest bear cubs I've ever seen. Those three eaglets were successfully released into the wild...and are seen on occasion (tagged).

The Decorah nest is still on cam. The Norfolk nest was removed. I've heard that 'Dad' Norfolk still attempts to build nests at the botanical gardens. Having a close up view of these majestic birds of prey raising their young is quite fascinating and educational. Wildlife cams can also show us just how cruel life can be sometimes.

3.1  katrix  replied to  cms5 @3    6 months ago

The Decorah one seems to be one of the most famous.

I think ours has sound as well.  A parental warning was posted on it when another male came in and was fighting the resident male. 

I love how when I kayak on the river, I almost always see bald eagles flying overhead.

4  WallyW    6 months ago

Here's a musical tribute to these wonderful birds. I've posted it before, but it never gets old.

4.1  katrix  replied to  WallyW @4    6 months ago

You had posted it on the article I seeded - and I am enjoying watching it again this time around! 

5  Kavika     6 months ago

Quite the day time soap opera....

Eagles feathers are not waterproof although they can swim. If they are too far from land they will drown. 

A few years back my fishing buddy and I saw this happen. It was late spring and the water was cold and the eagle was in the middle of a very large lake and was struggling to swim. It would have never made the shore. We used a fishing net and got it partially into the net and idled to shore, about 1/2 mile away. We got it up onto the shore so it could dry out. We came back a few hours later just in time to see it take off...The sun and wind dried it feathers. 

5.1  cms5  replied to  Kavika @5    6 months ago

That's awesome!

Up close and personal - these majestic birds of prey are HUGE! Yet...they are so delicate and caring with their young.

5.1.1  Kavika   replied to  cms5 @5.1    6 months ago
That's awesome!

Thanks, we really felt good about what we were able to do. They are majestic and huge, 

Where we fish we see a lot of them and have seen them locked in mortal combat with one another. The talons will lock in mid air and the two fighting will crash to earth...

5.1.2  cms5  replied to  Kavika @5.1.1    6 months ago
Where we fish we see a lot of them and have seen them locked in mortal combat with one another. The talons will lock in mid air and the two fighting will crash to earth...

I've seen videos of that...and some have been found on the ground, in lakes or rivers, in parking lots...talons still locked together. As their population grows...the battle for territory during mating season becomes more common.

6  katrix    6 months ago

We may not have eggs in either of the two D.C. nests, but Belle is sitting on two eggs at the NCTC nest - which are expected to hatch in the next 7 - 10 days.


Raven Wing
7  Raven Wing    6 months ago

A wonderful story. The eagle is a sacred bird and Spirit Guide to many Native American tribes, including the Cherokee. It is good to see that such a program of re-introduction is not only successful, but, also has such a large and devoted following is indeed uplifting.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.


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