South Dakota is normally a wintering stop for bald eagles. Several dams on the Missouri River are ideal locations for the birds to fish for food without fear of the water freezing over. But this year, two eagles stayed through the winter and nested for the first time since 1885.
The eagle nest is in a towering dead cottonwood tree hanging over the Missouri River. The Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge is home to many species, from coyotes and bobcats to woodpeckers and now the bald eagle.
This refuge in south central South Dakota is near the Nebraska border. More than 100 years ago, wintering eagles were common, but settlers clearing the land for farming chased nesting eagles away. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has restored the habitat along the river as a way to protect wildlife in it's natural surroundings.
Jay Peterson, refuge operations specialist, talks as he looks through binoculars.
"I see one adult on the nest," Peterson says. "Actually, it's perched on a limb just next to the nest. We'll just walk up closer and it'll probably fly off and do some vocalization as we approach. So, we'll do that."
We walk along a grassy narrow trail leading to the river, about 50 yards from the nest. Peterson has been this close to the nest only three times. Usually, he watches the nesting pair from the east side of the river, a mile-and-a-half away. He says the adult eagles will circle around and either chirp or bark at us as their way of warning intruders to stay away from the nest. The warning sounds like one bark from a dog.
The adults are protecting their nest. It's huge at about five feet across and five feet deep. For a few minutes, it's left unattended. Peterson suspects the adults are gathering food.
"Usually one (goes) early in the morning, first thing, and (then again) right towards the evening right before it gets dark," Peterson says. "During the day usually one is near the nest, either on it or perched nearby and the other bird is probably out hunting for fish or perched nearby."
The eaglets are about a month old and just starting to get their darker -- more permanent feathers. They won't sprout the white head and tail feathers until they mature, in four to five years. The eaglets peek over the top of the nest, their over-sized curved beak is too big for their matted, downy head. Experts say at this age the eaglets feet are also overly mismatched to their body.
Jay Peterson checks out the birds through binoculars.
"It appears one chick is slightly larger than the other," he says. "That would make sense because there is always a delayed hatch. Sometimes you'll have a two-day difference.
As we watch, one of the adult birds returns.
"Perhaps we'll hear some vocalization," Peterson says. "There's so much to learn you know. This is new for us you know since this hasn't happened in many, many years and we're learning a lot of things ourselves just by watching this nest."
Peterson says there's a 90 percent chance if the eagles raise offspring successfully here, they'll use the nest again next season. Each year, they add to the nest making it larger and larger.
Many states are working to bring nesting eagles back. New York started the process, sometimes called hacking, in 1976. States with a larger nesting population remove eaglets at age six to eight weeks and transport them to the hack site where they will grow their fledgling feathers preparing for first flight, according to Peterson.
"The idea all comes from the fact that once that bird fledges, it's very loyal to the nest site. When they come back themselves to nest at approximately five years of age, they'll come back to that area instead of original area taken from."
There's some hope that a program like that could work in South Dakota. Bob Usgaard, a graduate student from South Dakota State University, is following similar work in Indiana, Tennessee, California and Ohio. Usgaard says they've all started to see positive results.
"We're kind of behind the times," Usgaard says. "A lot of the hacking that's been done was in late 1970s early 80s. The mid 1980s were peak hacking for most of the states, so we're late bloomers in that respect."
Usgaard says his study will be completed in September and he has determined that bald eagle re-population is feasible in South Dakota. He says there are several areas along the river with habitat eagles look for. Large trees with dead branches near the top offer the perfect kind of situation, with an eight to ten-foot opening that makes take-offs and landings easier.
Usgaard says South Dakota must decide how much money to put into the process, which could cost about $30,000 a year. Education is the key to keeping eagles nesting in the state, according to Usgaard. People need to know how much human interaction the bald eagles can tolerate, like boaters on the nearby Missouri River or hikers getting too close to the nest.
"The bald eagle is a wonderful public relations bird, to help get people involved in wildlife," Usgaard says. "I think in terms of being on the Missouri River it's good to have them here, but it's also important to know what they need."
Usgaard says South Dakotans are excited about having the bald eagles here. But he cautions even with perfect conditions, young eagles can have a hazardous life. The chance of both eaglets surviving to their first flight in mid-july is fifty-fifty.