The American Bald Eagle National Geographic Documentary

Jun 23, 2021 09:28 · 3735 words · 18 minute read

i think that being an eagle is a tough thing i mean they’re out there every day living on the edge of survival i’m neil redding i’m a natural history filmmaker i’ve been making wildlife documentaries for over 30 years my big passion in life though has been birds of prey the really neat thing about this is that on a day like today you have unlimited visibility 180 degrees after all these years i decided it was the time to learn more about the national bird bird that americans really don’t know all that much about and so we set out to discover their secret life how they breed how they hunt to depict a real predator the chaser of ducks a catcher of game and what we found was in some ways incredibly mind-blowing they will face any kind of threat with full force and they won’t hold back here’s a couple more juicing each other down here look they’re gonna come by we’re gonna get some shots along the tributary of the mississippi neil finds the perfect nest site it happens to be right above the state fish hatchery in a huge cottonwood tree now these eagles turn out to be an extraordinary pair to work with not only were they very tolerant of human activity but they were also catching trout right under the nest in the fish hatchery ponds the female was a particularly cool character she had one eye missing watching these birds work on the nest and the dead of winter was really something but the most exciting thing was watching them actually swoop down into the waters of the fish hatchery pond even though the female had one eye i was amazed at her accuracy and actually catching trout there was no toleration of the trespassers the nest site is the nucleus of their activities and they have to protect the resources right near the nest any other eagle that would come anywhere near that fish hatchery pond will be chased off it’s a demonstration too of speed and agility the maneuvers were remarkable through the branches and that is one of the things that has always surprised me about this species how fast they are all winter even as temperatures dip to 20 below the pair has worked together refurbishing the nest i think a lot of the nest building activity is part of peer bonding because they have to get their act together as a matter of survival it’s now the end of march and the female settles into the nest with a tell-tale waggle bald eagles normally lay two to three eggs but this spring the one-eyed female only laid one egg the couple begins a daily routine for five long weeks they’ll take turns incubating the egg as winter ebbs the well-practiced team seems to be headed for success but spring is a fickle season in mid-april it was a freak snowstorm i’ll never forget it the nest was being blown around by this violent wind the snow was going absolutely horizontal and it just kept reminding me of what these birds are facing in everyday life they were well into incubation so the changing of the guard was always quick because you got to remember they have delicate eggs that they’re protecting and keeping warm there seemed to be shifts of an hour an hour and a half where one eagle would sit on the egg while the other was out foraging for food through this storm the mail sat waiting for the female to return tragically something happened to her we’re not sure what there’s so many things out there that can work against the survival of these magnificent birds and makes you realize how fragile their existence actually is cold and hungry the father abandons his egg now he has lost almost everything he may find another mate and start all over again but until then he must defend his territory alone when europeans arrived in north america the continent teamed with as many as half a million bald eagles but as settlers advanced the raptors became targets and their nesting trees fell to the blade for raptor specialist bob anderson the pioneer’s attitude was simply arrogant and ignorant all birds of prey were just considered vermin i mean they were all chicken hawks they were all bad birds be it a a bald eagle golden eagle i read until hawk they were all shot at the start of the 20th century bald eagles were under siege across the lower 48.

alaska seemed like the last wild place and there the bald eagle thrived but in 1917 the territory introduced a cash bounty by mid-century over 120 000 eagles had been shot and the gravest threat was still to come after world war ii ddt came into widespread use to control insect pests bald eagle numbers went from decline to free freefall when i was a kid just to see a bald eagle was just a once in a lifetime experience the phones would ring if a bald eagle was seen anywhere i mean everybody would call it be on the front page of the paper a bald eagle with seed ddt made eggshells thin and fragile sharply reducing the number of hatching chicks the crash was taking place so rapidly i was just convinced whatever eagle i saw was was just going to be a dinosaur in my lifetime they’re going to be extinct in the 1960s just over 400 nesting pairs remained in the continental united states in the 70s two centuries after embracing an icon of wildness the u.

s declared the bald eagle in danger america’s symbol of strength had become an emblem of environmental degradation but america was not about to forsake its troubled symbol researchers finally persuaded congress to take action against ddt by 1973 general use of the pesticide was banned almost immediately bald eagles started to rebound in 2007 the american eagle was removed from the endangered species list by tapping our own better natures we had given primal nature a second chance it was late summer and the eagle had left the nest it was a perfect opportunity to climb the 80 feet up and investigate bob and i wanted to have a look to see just what was on the nest wow here’s a skull of some mammal the top part of the brain of some mammal and here we’ve got the remains of a this is a rabbit foot here let’s see a little bit of the femur bones here and here’s a feather dark feather that almost looks like it might be from a pro possibly a duck bob and neil decide to look for possible positions to put cameras bob is a nest cam expert that we would we’re really hoping to install here in the next week or two with multiple cameras you know one on this one maybe one of this one perhaps one on the other limb all pointing into this general area the bowl of the nest you heard a sea late we have their tree legs when working with this job bob will have a bird’s eye view in the coming nesting season no matter whether the single male succeeds or fails october in the upper mississippi valley the fall weather is mild and eagles are free from the burdens of the nest water birds soon to depart for warmer havens are briefly abundant joining the eagles that live here year round are bald eagle migrants flying south from canada some have flown 1400 miles to find open water this surge of eagles now turns to hunting bald eagles will sometimes chase mountains but the river offers much easier prey coots raft together by the thousands and these calm birds are a favorite meal the strong wind allows an eagle the rare chance to hover like a smaller raptor the kite there’s more than enough prey for every eagle but thievery is in their nature as one hunter lands at a muskrat hat other eagles immediately try to steal this prize this autumn bounty is a returning glimmer of the old days in november when the eagles are staging on the upper mississippi there is one place far to the north that is almost primeval an untouched wilderness this is the chillcat river in alaska where great runs of salmon bring eagles from as far as a thousand miles away the salmon have made their own epic journey in from the sea to spawn they will die soon afterwards but they will sustain this great gathering of eagles as they have done each autumn for thousands of years i’ve always wanted to go to the chill cat and it was not a letdown i have never seen so many eagles in one place there can be as many as two thousand in one small area in the river it’s like going back into time being there because bald eagles do specialize often in fish their feet are modified with tiny projections on the bottom of the toes and the pads of the feet which actually make it easy for them to grip fish their beaks are incredibly efficient at ripping the flesh of fish and other prey that they catch eagles generally can go fairly long periods without eating they have what’s called a crop which is an extension of the esophagus which is a storage bag for food when there’s plenty of food around they’ll take advantage of it by gorging themselves and they can actually go after a gorge for a week to 10 days without feeding if they have to but as soon as a bald eagle catches something you can bet that within seconds another one’s gonna come in and hassle it back along the mississippi autumn is on the way winter makes a gentle entrance bald eagles can now walk on the river although some seem to prefer skating gizzard shad can still be plucked up but they will soon be entombed in ice as open water freezes over an eagle must be ever more precise at the hatchery nest bob anderson has been keeping an eye on the widowed male the male will always make occasional visits to the nest he still maintains the territories working on his nest adding little uh trinkets that might make it more attractive this particular nest is prime property it’s uh you know located so close to a prime food source and many many eagles have been vying to get into the territory now that he’s alone an approaching female would be courted after rearranging his corn husks the male sets off to cover his territory but now another eagle buzzes the nest it’s a female an aerial duet may be a chance for the prospective couple to size up each other’s condition a healthy eagle can cruise at 40 miles an hour in level 5 and hit 100 in a dive after a few minutes with their heads in the clouds the courtship is over romance is a luxury there’s work to be done when the eagles first land together on the nest they’re a little bit apprehensive and i think that moving around the sticks together and grass together just kind of cements the bond it kind of creates the marriage that will only get deeper and deeper as the weeks progress but ironically in this situation the male has the final say even though she brings a stick and tries to put into some place the male will grab her stick and put it someplace else we think she’s a four-year-old uh she does have speckles on her head but you can see a little dark streak in the top of her beak the dark streak tells us that maybe she’s a four-year-old he’s got a young bride probably coming into her first breeding season winter drains the last warmth from the river fresh perils appear for all the creatures along the mississippi and now the most brutal season tiptoes in in a workshop beneath the iowa hatchery nest bob anderson checks on his reality show in one of you what an incredible angle of looking at the american bald eagle and there she is also and he’s the boss boy this is his nest i mean he calls the shots he’s in charge of all construction no matter what she does he comes back and rearranges it and 100 of the time that she brought in a little bit of grass and if she flies off now he will go take that grass and put it someplace else despite squabbles over a decor the new couple is starting to embrace their common purpose you can actually see them they’re bumping each other they’re interacting there’s no aggressiveness at all a month ago they would have never tolerated this being this close to each other it’s like now they’re a team we know that that they’re getting close to laying their eggs when you start seeing this behavior the young female lays her quarter pound egg before dawn exposed an egg can freeze in a minute and so the father will need to move in for his first shift the first egg was late early in the morning we actually missed it we saw the birds sitting in the bowl we knew that it would be soon but we were kind of surprised to see this first egg but we can see him how careful he is with his feet his feet are balled up and he’s trying to hide his talons he doesn’t want those nails to poke a hole in that fragile egg it’s touching to watch that sensitivity that this old guy has had you know with many many eggs probably in his lifetime if a second egg is coming it’s due two days after the first come on stand up she looks like she’s about ready to stand up but what do we have we have two eggs we’ve got two eggs see let’s see them both now we just have to wait 35 days from today to see our first baby if eagles can feel pride or joy the new parents must be brimming over they will now work nearly unbroken shifts but even such an effort can’t guarantee that the eggs will hatch safely especially since they must survive one of the longest incubations of any bird along the upper mississippi egg thieves abound raccoons and crows are everywhere so each parent is highly attuned to any sight or sound of menace and then another storm we knew a storm was coming and we really wanted to see the first reaction of the birds waking up covered in snow so we made sure we had our recorders running long before daylight i was at first disappointed we had snow on the lens but it just shows how ugly the conditions really really are this bird’s covered in snow and she’s screaming right now with the mail going come and relieve me come and take my place and he does on a minnesota farm 40 miles away another family is further along their two eaglets have already hatched the mother feeds her four-day-old daughter the two-day-old male hardly able to hold his head up doesn’t seem to be getting a fair share although both parents are dedicated they have a blind spot for one particular peril one within the family sibling rivalry it’s not unusual for the older eaglet to turn on the younger and smaller in nature’s cold calculation why share your meals when you can eat more alone neil has been documenting the story from a stifling blind just a stone’s throw from the nest the dynamics of this whole syndrome is that the chicken speed up becomes weaker and weaker powers he’s kind of afraid to even stand upright and the female will always feed the chick that’s more robust it is called the cane and abel syndrome the beatings go on for about oh five to eight minutes sometimes maybe 12 minutes the bigger chick is getting up to 30 or 40 pieces of food per feeding the little one would get about six to eight pieces in the last few days we’ve been worried a lot about whether the younger smaller chick is going to survive or not so we got our fingers crossed in little ut we call it’s gonna be okay the battle will resolve one way or another and soon water flows again at last spring has come to the upper mississippi things are looking up for all of the creatures along the river eagles visiting from canada now return north to their nesting territories for year-round residents like the hatchery couple spring means getting ready for eaglets the first babies hatch now and you can see how kind of inept and clumsy this young bird is she doesn’t quite know what to do that baby’s begging for food and yet she’s not fully responding to it and that there’s food off to the right in the nest and these first few days were so painful for us if it wasn’t for the male i don’t think the babies would have survived the eaglet is too exhausted to beg and now the mother starts to feed herself parent and young are failing to connect suddenly the mother focuses on her chick as if seeing it for the first time she’s just she doesn’t know how to approach you know and she’s kind of she’s trying to ball up her feet she just stepped on the baby dirt it’s a lot different than a hard egg this shot here really just surprised she had her tail facing into the wind the winds gusted to 40 miles an hour the wind actually literally blew her out of the nest and she almost took the baby with her something an experienced bird would never do it’s been a trying day and the stakes are only going up here’s our young female standing up and as you can see you know we’ve got our second baby that it did hatch and again you can see that she’s getting a little bit better with her feet you know already there’s been a little bit of learning i guess that’s taking place and now the old man will command the guy that’s so proven that’s him on the right she’s stepping off now here’s the adult male he’s clearly fed babies before he just walks in and just he’ll put the food right in that baby’s beak after one or two tries he’s very experienced and patient it will take the eaglet a little practice to actually get something to eat at least in this nest there’s no sign of sibling rivalry at the minnesota farm neil waits for the outcome of the sibling battle the sister is alive and sassy but what about underdog finally i could see that underdog was competing he was actually getting food offered by the female and gaining strength today he does look better i think little underdog might have a chance once the eaglets were six to seven weeks old the clean and able center was long past and they were both healthy and vigorous each day these little guys will eat the equivalent of about a half a pound to a pound of fish the demand on the parents is increasing and they’ll probably bring four or five kills to the nest during the course of the day sometimes their prey is killed for them but this kind of meal is no free lunch every year countless bald eagles are struck by vehicles losing either parent may hurt the young heels chances of fledging at the age of 10 weeks seven thousand feathers have replaced the downey coat of youth allowing new skills to emerge underdog starts building up strength with short flights to nowhere only two weeks remain before the chick’s maiden flights summer along the mississippi seems like a carefree season but new challenges at the hatchery nest the eaglets are still growing their flight feathers underdog and his sister are closer to independence and no one declares independence without taking risks this nest is about 60 feet off the ground both eaglets are jumping up and down on main exercising and getting ready to make that first jump off the nest the first journey into the sky nearby other young eagles are already on the way it must feel really wonderful to have your first flight underway and feel the wind rushing by the landing is the tricky part underdog tests his engines at full power his sister seems to have cold feet the wind picks up an underdog leans into it there are misconceptions that birds are taught to fly but really it’s totally instinctive they do chase their parents around however possibly to steal fish and also because they’re bald eagles they’re social at the fish hatchery an empty nest is no longer a sign of loss it is a sign of two successful fledglings who will soon join a hunting free-for-all as fall arrives a cycle of seasons is completed once again the mississippi becomes a crossroads for water birds for this year’s fledgling eagles the time has come for the next big test so it’s a big moment for a young bald eagle to bag his first coup bald eagle’s a survivor it’s gone through really bad times and now it’s prevailing is an illustration that we can make a difference and we can be stewards of this planet with food so plentiful bald eagles young adult switch from hunting to something more like rugby only one human generation ago such a celebration of eagles could not have been witnessed on the mississippi i think the story of the american eagle was a great parallel to the triumphs and tribulations of our country and if we look at the eel as a role model i think these birds are kind of living a struggle for existence and freedom just like our country and i can’t think of a better national symbol than the bald eagle.