“Oh, my gosh, that sound! When is that adult bald eagle going to bring another fish and quiet that young one down? Poor little thing is going to starve to death!”
These lines of internal monologue have been part of my daily repertoire for two months now. That’s when I became one of thousands of daily viewers from around the world hooked on the live stream feed from the Decorah Eagle Cam.
A cluster of permanent webcams has been set up at the Decorah Fish Hatchery, thanks to the Raptor Resource Project (RRP), and shared through the web portal explore.org. There, viewers witness the daily parade of fish, pheasants, squirrels, rabbits and more brought to the nest in the talons of the parents, to feed their noisy eaglet, Decorah Hatchery 2 (DH2 for short).
And no, that young eagle hasn’t starved to death.
The Decorah Eagles made fame early on, as this recent blog post details. To summarize from the Raptor Resource Project, the Decorah-based group launched one of the first ever eagle-cams, back in 2011. Watching animals of any sort when they didn’t know they were being watched, well, who could resist?
Certainly not the types of people who love wildlife, and could while away hours doing just that, away from the throngs of other humans. And certainly not the types of people who connect with those animals, who are much more wild and free than we could ever be. And as it turns out, eagle watching is habit forming.
HD (Hatchery Dad) and HM (Hatchery Mom) are just two of the bald eagles who’ve built or remodeled nests in the cottonwood trees on private property adjacent to the Decorah Hatchery. The hatchery, operated by the Iowa Division of Natural Resources, raises rainbow trout for eventual release into Iowa streams. The spring-fed flow-through raceways, the reservoir, and Trout Run stream make an ideal food court for eagles.
The town of Decorah is the county seat of Winneshiek County and stands at 7,680 residents in the city limits. It’s the largest town in the county and a tourist destination. Besides eagles, it has an appealing arts and music scene. It has Luther College and the Vesterheim Museum, both cultural attractions.
Geographically, this is known as the Driftless Area, which many outdoors lovers speak about in reverent tones. It includes the Upper Iowa River, with its spring fed trout streams. And the bike trail. And the bluffs. The eagles have done their part to put the name Decorah on people’s radar, whether as visitors from the surrounding rural counties or from metropolitan areas such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, and beyond.
Locals here in Decorah are especially interested in and proud of these charismatic birds. We see them pictured on T-shirts. We see the live stream on large TV screens in places like the public library or the downtown drug store. And when Canada geese took over a vacant eagle nest a few hundred yards away, the web cam that once showed us eagles gave us a front row seat. We watched their six eggs turn into six goslings, who at a few days old made the leap to the creek bed below. They all survived the jump and made it to the waterway. Unfortunately, one was badly injured and taken in by a veterinarian, but soon died.
Although this is my first year living in Decorah, I have known something about the Decorah eagles (and geese) for many years. A regional news channel updates viewers on hatchings and fledgings, and moments in between. But now I live just two miles from the Hatchery by car, one mile if I were a flying eagle. It’s hard not to get caught up, including taking multiple strolls around the grounds each week with my husband and our dog. Now that DH2 is no longer considered an eaglet but rather a juvenile eagle, the chatter about when the heck she’s going leave the nesting tree and officially “fledge” is everywhere.
I say “everywhere” because I’m part of the RRP chat group, where, as I type this sentence, 538 people are logged in. Often these chatters include groups of school children watching as part of a class. They are certainly getting an education. That includes when nature delivers a hard blow, which does sometimes happen.
Let me say that I’m no eagle expert. I’m so grateful for the RRP folks who greet us visitors and politely answer the same question over and over. It goes something like this:
Q: Is it a male or female?
A: We aren’t sure, we may never know, but based on the large size and beak shape we’re starting to think female.
Q: When are they going to bring another fish?
A: We aren’t sure, but these two are good parents and they know what they are doing.
Q: When is she going to leave this nest?
A: Only DH2 knows, for sure. She’ll go when she’s ready.
Q: Is it harder for her to learn because she doesn’t have any siblings?
A: Possibly, but much of what she does is instinct, and she learns a great deal from the parents.
Q: What happened to DH1?
This last requires some explanation. The first eaglet, DH1, hatched at 4:10 a.m. on April 5. The tiny critter seemed alert and healthy to us watching over the livestream. But that night was cold and wet, and DH1 was unprotected from the weather. The eaglet died sometime that first night, likely of hypothermia. Many of us who logged on to the webcam early that next morning were saddened to see a little white fluffy form alone in the nest and could tell that it was dead. We could also see that second egg, still safe in the nest. On April 6 at 6:45 p.m., out came DH2.
Over the weeks, this little eagle has gone from pecking its way out of an egg, to pecking at parental talons, to gobbling fish in large swallows, to shredding the fur off deceased rabbits and finally, to spending her nights standing on a branch, just like the adults do. Through most of this process she’s kept up the frequent squee squee squee we all love but which prompts some of us to lower the volume on our devices. (Turns out, she’s every bit as loud to the ears of listeners near the cottonwood tree.) Very soon she’ll make the first flight out of the cottonwood to some other tree nearby. She’ll remain under the watchful eyes of her parents, who will teach her to fish, to scavenge and to kill her own prey.
On the day I’m writing this, DH2 is 82 days old. She’s taken longer than average to “branch,” meaning flapping her wings and hopping to another branch within her nesting tree. Now she’s taking her time with fledging, that is, flying to another tree entirely. Once she does that, she’ll be harder for the camera operators to track. Meanwhile she’s a superstar. Every day that we go to the Hatchery a few more folks are getting comfy in their lawn chairs, telephoto lenses pointed at the cottonwood tree, waiting for the big moment. That’s in spite of dangerously smoky air, drifting in from the wildfires in Canada.
In a few weeks the Raptor Resource Project will be holding a three-day After the Fledge event at the Decorah Hatchery, meant to celebrate all the birds we’ve been watching and learning from this year. Not only the Decorah eagles and geese, but also kestrels, falcons, vultures, and the birdlife that teems in the Upper Mississippi River Flyway. Bird lovers will come to Decorah from all over the country from big cities and small towns, if past years are any indication. This will be my first year, and I can’t wait.
The experts say DH2 will likely stick around this area for the summer and come fall will disperse to wherever she decides to go, while her parents likely remain here in their territory. We’ll never know for sure what will happen to her. In past years some eagles were fitted with transmitters so they could be tracked. That’s how we learned about those that were electrocuted, struck by cars, or simply disappeared. But it’s also how we learned about those who’ve successfully mated and raised eagles of their own to maturity.
Now the sun is setting for the evening and DH2 has flown out of camera range. Folks in the chat group who live nearby report they can still hear her, moving around in the tree. Who knows where tomorrow will take her? I’m almost glad that transmitter project is no longer in place. I want to be able to hear a cry from the sky, spot a pair of board-straight black wings, and say, “Wow, there goes DH2. I’d know that voice anywhere.”
Julianne Couch lives in Decorah, Iowa, at the edge of an impact crater, in the heart of the Driftless Area. She visits the Hatchery several times a week and almost always finds someone there, new to the area, who asks about the eagles.
P.S. DH2 fledged the very day she submitted this story for publication, June 30, 2023.