Hays eagles unfazed, seem to renest

Last fall the sports authority cut down trees around the flame to make it less attractive to raptors and other birds that like to perch in the area while hunting for prey.

Pittsburgh — Just a week after a powerful wind storm took down their nest Feb. 12, a pair of American bald eagles built a brand new nursery and appeared to be sitting on an egg in Hays, the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where they have lived for five years.

The new nest is about 200 yards from the site of the collapsed nest that had been monitored 24/7 on a webcam for the past four years.

Although the inside of their new nursery could not be observed, the birds’ behavior suggested that they were tending to an egg, according to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, which is monitoring the Hays eagles and another pair in nearby Harmar  on the Allegheny River.

“The birds are taking turns on the nest, never leaving it unattended,” Audubon spokesman Rachel Handel said on Feb. 20. “They’re lying down within the nest, which is a sign of incubation.”

When they stand, the birds have been observed leaning down – an indication they are rolling the egg to ensure evenness of temperature, she said. “The adult will then lie back down over the egg to continue incubation.”

It takes about 35 days for an eagle egg to hatch, so the expected birth date is around March 26.

The eagles lost their 600-pound nest and their first egg of the season when high winds and soggy ground caused a toppling of the 50-foot-tall hackberry tree that contained their nursery high on a bluff above the Monongahela River.

Because the nest was on 24/7 live video feed, hundreds of people witnessed the drama as it happened, generating buzz on Facebook and other social media.

“The eagles are tremendously popular, so there was a lot of disappointment,” said Jim Bonner, executive director of Audubon. “People reacted very quickly.”

Bonner visited the site the following morning and said the adult birds were spotted flying in the area – likely scouting a site for a new nest – and soon were seen carrying sticks to a sycamore tree in which they used to perch. The egg destroyed in the collapse of the tree was less than a week old, and the laying of another egg was imminent.

“There’s typically a two- to four-day span in between laying eggs,” Handel said. “This means the egg laid in the new nest was already being developed within the female’s body prior to the nest collapse.”

That the pair built a new nursery so quickly is a testament to their resilience, Handel said. Eagle nests are typically 6 to 9 feet wide and 3 to 6 feet deep and are always a work in progress.

“Once the nest is done, they’ll continue to add to it, Bonner said. The male has always been good at bringing material to the nest, even after the eggs are laid. He’s very fastidious.”

A nest is not a home; it’s strictly a nursery, Bonner said, noting that nest-building is part of a courtship ritual that goes on all year and reinforces life-long pair-bonding. “Eagles are driven to nest-build. It’s a progression, something they are driven to do.”

Eagles also copulate throughout the year, but the female is only fertile for a brief period of time in winter. The Hays raptors are a mature pair who have provided eagle-cam viewers with plenty of drama over the years, including a showdown with a marauding raccoon and a dead cat they brought their eaglets for dinner.

Whatever antics are in store this year will have to be observed in old-school fashion, with binoculars from the ground, since their new nest is too obscure for the video-cam as it is currently positioned, and trying to reconfigure the setup would violate federal law, which prohibits intruding on an active nest area, Bonner said.

“Also, from a moral, ethical perspective, these birds have been through a lot and they’re settling on a new nest, so the last thing they need is for people to get in their space.”

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