Looking for a new winter adventure to brighten up these grey winter days? Grab your binoculars and take the short drive to the eagle nest in Llano County on Highway 29. The locally famous American Bald Eagle pair (I call them Eddie and Edwina) arrived back in their winter home in early October, and now have two eaglets who are nearly four weeks old. If only one adult is in the nest the other is likely out hunting for food. The nest is in a tree beside the Llano River, but you cannot see the river from the road. My husband Bob and I witnessed the magnificent sight last year of an eagle in flight from the river to the nest with a large fish in its talons. Watching these proud birds soar through the air leaves no doubt as to why the United States Second Continental Congress officially declared the Bald Eagle as our country’s National Emblem in 1782.
Once you get close to the nest you cannot miss the pull off spot on the highway, complete with several signs and a fence. Park and once you get out of the car just look straight ahead. Although the nest is approximately 130 yards off the road, you can see it clearly with the naked eye. On weekends and often during the week there are friendly photographers there who will let you look through their powerful lenses. We have made several trips there over the years and without fail we have ended up chatting with strangers about these fascinating birds. There is always a steady stream of visitors, most who come regularly to check on the eagle family. Last week a man stopped by who said he had been watching the eagles for years. He was traveling between jobs that day but said he drove eighty miles out of his way to check on the nest.
Dale Schmidt of Texas Parks and Wildlife has been watching this eagle nest since the pair first built it in 2003. He said that when the nest first came into view from the highway word spread and several newspapers, including the Austin American Statesman, covered the story. The Texas Department of Transportation built a safe pull off area in response to the thousands of bird watchers that came as a result of the news blitz. Schmidt said that the original nest was on the opposite shore of the river and it fell down, perhaps because of its size. After several seasons of eaglets hatching in a nest and the adults rebuilding it in subsequent years, a nest can reach a weight over 800 pounds. A heavy rain can add to the nest’s weight since mud is used for the base, which is lined with twigs, moss and grasses. When a nest falls the new nest is generally rebuilt close by, and is on average five feet across and two feet tall. The nest support of choice is a sturdy tall tree within a mile of a water source. Schmidt estimates the present diameter of the Llano nest at about eight feet.
Last week we saw an adult feeding the two babies in the nest, its regal head bobbing up and down as its fluffy grey offspring devoured the food. Eagles mate for life and can live thirty years. In previous years three adults appeared in the nest, two of them female, and they all fed and raised the babies. Schmidt says this is highly unusual since the birds are generally very territorial. The second female was last seen in January 2007.
Eaglets grow rapidly but it takes four to five years before their head turns white. They will be full grown at twelve weeks, and this year’s offspring will start fledging from the nest in April. They will stay in the area for a few weeks and you may still see them on the nest occasionally. Sometime in May they will head north. I asked Schmidt how far they might migrate, and he told me about a Parks and Wildlife banding program in the early 1990’s. Colored bands were put on several eagles with the US Fish and Wildlife Service phone number on them. One was reported in New York. Schmidt says the eagles on Lake Buchanan are Northern eagles and migrate long distances. However, the eagles on Highway 29 are Southern eagles and usually don’t venture more than one state away. They will return to the same area but not their birth nest. Although they have dedicated and nurturing parents when they are young, if these eaglets try to return to the nest their parents chase will them away. I guess this could be the original “tough love” treatment…perhaps humans could learn something from our feathered friends about children returning to the nest.
The Bald Eagle was listed as Endangered in most of the U.S. from 1967 to 1995, when the nesting pairs had increased from 500 to 10,000. The primary law protecting Bald Eagles has shifted from the Endangered Spies Act to the Bald and Golden Eagle Act. Because of their size they have few predators, their worst enemies being guns, power lines, windmills, starvation and poisons.
If you visit the Bald Eagles on Highway 29, it would be best to leave your pet gerbil at home. An eagle’s eyesight is four times more acute than a person with 20/20 vision. They can see both forward and to the side at the same time. They can see fish in the water from a height of several hundred feet. An eagle can identify a rabbit moving almost a mile away, or flying at an altitude of 1000 feet over open country could spot prey over an area of almost three square miles from a fixed position. A mature eagle can lift objects up to four pounds and their diving speed is estimated at 75 to 100 miles per hour. They can fly to altitudes of 10,000 feet or more and soar aloft for hours, using natural wind currents and thermal updrafts.
Check out the Llano County Bald Eagle nest and I guarantee you will get hooked too. To finish off a perfect day for you and your guests, dine at Tamale King on the way home at 15405 E. Hwy. 29. The always full parking lot attests to the quality of their friendly service and delicious Tex Mex fare. Their Margaritas aren’t bad either. 512-793-2677.
By the way, since the water is low in Lake Buchanan the Vanishing River Cruise is not taking its usual route up the Colorado River to view the wintering eagles. The eagle count is being done by canoe this year. However, there are still a variety of interesting cruises available on Lake Buchanan. For more information call 800-728-8735 or 512-756-6986. The photos herein were taken by Jess Thompson. If you are lucky you may run into him at the nest site and have the opportunity to view his photographs. He sells beautiful collages and published a book on the Llano Bald Eagle nest which sold out but you might run across a copy at businesses in the area. Look at all of his beautiful wildlife photographs, including the Bald Eagles, at cottonwoodphotography.com.
Driving Directions from HSB:
Leaving HSB, turn right on Hwy. 71, going west toward Llano app. 5.7 miles.
Turn right on 2233 and go 2.6 mi., then left on 2900 for 5.3 mi. When you reach Hwy.1431 in Kingsland, turn left. Take 1431 5.5 mi. to “Fuzzy’s Corner,” as the old timers call it, at Hwy.1431 and Hwy. 29. Turn left, going west toward Llano. The eagle nest will be on your left side. Estimated time: 30 to 40 minutes.