My apologies in advance for the length of this story but please bear with me. This is not a posting I am happy to make as I say goodbye to this majestic bald eagle matriarch that I have had the privilege of photographing many times.
This past weekend I paid her nest a visit and, unfortunately, no one was home. That isn’t surprising this time of year as they have no reason to be there unless it is nesting season. I waited for an hour or so and decided to give up. When I left, I walked along the river, hoping to find something else to photograph. As I did, I glanced to the side and something in the brush caught my eye.
My heart stopped. A bald eagle lying dead on the ground. An absolutely devastating discovery.
As I stood there contemplating what to do, my mind was flooded with the memories of her, her mate and her offspring and the great joy I had watching and photographing them. I’d be lying if I said the tears didn’t flow from my eyes.
Knowing I needed to get ahold of someone, a flurry of emails and phone calls followed and soon I met a contractor with Colorado Parks & Wildlife on site. The speed at which it all happened was impressive but the death of our national emblem is a pretty big deal.
We hiked into the nest and retrieved the body so it could be tested and analyzed to determine the cause of death. A retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist, the contractor guessed it was the female judging by the size of the talons and beak and had been dead 5 to 7 days. He immediately transported the eagle to Fort Collins and the state wildlife lab.
Yesterday, I learned that tests revealed she had Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, bird flu. For those that don’t know, the bird flu has surged tremendously this year with devastating results. The flu largely infects poultry and waterfowl and, as bald eagles do eat ducks and such, they have been affected as well. This eagle is the third confirmed death from HPAI in Colorado this year. Many more are suspected.
Needless to say, this loss has hit me hard, harder than I would have expected. Being a wildlife photographer, I see life and death regularly but this one hurts. Bad. However, as part of this, I am heartened by a discovery that came about as a result of this.
As the biologist was inspecting the eagle, he noted some brown spots on a couple of its tail-feathers, indicating it was not much older than full maturity. He asked how long I had been watching the nest and I told him it had been six years. That means that given the relatively young age of this eagle, it was likely a “replacement”, not the original female I photographed when I first discovered the site.
After everything, I went back and looked through my pictures from years past and sure enough. In 2022, the female had the spots on the tail. In 2021 it did as well. In 2020, the female did not. That means that sometime between the 2020 and 2021 season, this “new” female took over. This is reason for hope as if the nest got a new matriarch once, it could do it again.
Until then, I will think back fondly on my time with this amazing creature and hope another takes up the mantle. While I am saddened today, I am reminded of a line from a song that every Coloradan knows. “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.”
Attached is a small sampling of the hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures I have taken of her over the last couple of years.