November 12, 2020: Searching for Mom and DM2

We were in Decorah on November 12 and spent a little over two hours looking for Mom and DM2. Somebody enjoyed a little frosty fresh fish breakfast on the Skywalk yesterday morning, but they were gone by the time we arrived. Unfortunately, we missed it! Would we see Mom or DM2 again today? Would we find the beginnings of a new nest? The lack of leaves made it an excellent day to go looking!

We started with a few assumptions. Firstly, the eagles have shown a strong preference for living right next to the grocery store, aka the retention pond. While we don’t have exact figures for pond trout versus all other food sources, we know it makes up a huge percentage of their protein! Search assumption number one: any new nests would most likely be within 1000 feet of the retention pond, which is 300 feet farther than the farthest nest they have built to date.

Map of the Decorah Eagles Territory

Map of the Decorah Eagles Territory

Secondly, the eagles prefer a little space between themselves and their human neighbors. They built N0 in back of the historic Hjelle house, but not right next to it. They built N1 behind the woodshed, but not right over the lawn. And they built N2 with a woody buffer of about 80 feet between themselves and the bike path. The hatchery has several large, beautiful trees that seem like excellent candidates, but humans amble, run, and picnic right beneath them on a regular basis. Search assumption number two: the eagles won’t choose a tree directly above an area that humans play or recreate in.

Thirdly, the tree has to be big enough to support a bald eagle nest, which rules out a surprising amount of trees on the bluff. Having said that, there are some great candidates at the base of the bluff, behind the Hjelle house, and behind the hatchery itself. Assumption number three: the eagles might change tree type, but they won’t choose a small tree of any type.

We started the search by walking east on the bike path, searching for new nests in the trees by Trout Run Creek. We walked about a quarter mile – a little farther than 1000 feet – and didn’t see anything. Treewise, the best candidates are all within about 1000 feet of the pond.

Next, we went over to the bridge and looked upstream. The lack of leaves made it very easy to search the trees. Nothing. Treewise, the best candidates are by the rocky gravel bar to the southwest of the white barn – about 800 or so feet from the pond.

Finally, we went to the top of the hatchery bluff and surveyed all we could see. We could clearly see N2B and the cameras in N1, but we couldn’t see any other nests. If the eagles are working on something else, it is still in the preliminary stages. We were quite high and could see a lot more than 1000 feet from the hatchery retention pond!

We saw an adult flying northeast when we arrived, but neither Mom nor DM2 showed up while we were at the hatchery. John jokingly suggested that maybe they were visiting other eagles on a nearby river. What started as a joke quickly became an inquiry! We know that D27 is hanging out in a valley that starts about two hills away from the nest, and we know that eagles tend to hang out together, especially when wintering. Maybe Mom and DM2 were down in the valley!

Amy packed up and headed over to one of D27’s hot spots. Would she find any eagles? She found ten: five adults, four subadults, and one eagle of an unknown age! Not only were they within 1000 feet of one another, several of them were perched together. As she watched, they jostled and competed for spots, much like crows in a roost. We don’t know if she saw Mom and DM2 or D27, although we’ll check coordinates from the 12th to see if we can verify it. Either way, she was thrilled to find Decorah’s own Eagle Valley and the sighting added to our many questions about Bald Eagle social behavior. We’ve often wondered whether the subadults we see on territory are eaglets from a past year’s clutch. Now I’m wondering if parents and children ever encounter one another in off-territory eagle groups, and to what degree those groups function as a pool from which new eagles are recruited (or force their way into) the breeding pool.

We’ll keep an eye on the cameras and have identified two more potential locations for a search…just in case! I apologize for the lack of photos – my camera phone wasn’t quite up to the job! I’ll bring a photographer next time.