Flights of Independence

After a first flight and botched landing, volunteers mounted a search for the juvenile Flame.The bald eagle nest-sits as 2022 alpha chick Phoenix tests her wings.Establishing their American River territory in 2016, a bald eagle couple has hatched 13 babies.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  Story and photos by Susan Maxwell Skinner
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After a first flight and botched landing, volunteers mounted a search for the juvenile Flame.

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The bald eagle nest-sits as 2022 alpha chick Phoenix tests her wings.

CARMICHAEL, CA (MPG) - Flips, fumbles – even a 24-hour missing eaglet alert – punctuated maiden flights for 2022 bald eaglet twins Phoenix and Flame. (Note: these names were coined by this observer. Scientific observers identify the two females hatched close to Sacramento as eaglets 12 and 13.)

Built in 2016, their parents’ eyrie was considered the closest to Sacramento in recorded history. The fact that bald eagles were nesting in unaccustomed territory underscored a comeback for the species that was near extinction in the 1970s. The American River nest has since accommodated 13 babies.

Eaglets fledge at around 12 weeks after hatching. To reach adult size in less than three months, babies are fed nonstop. They must also be sheltered from cold and parching canyon heat and predators. This year, the parents routed a bobcat that climbed almost to nursery level.

Mama and papa worked in relays to deliver prey. The hatchlings were delicately beak-fed at first. Later, as eaglet instinct developed, beaks and talons tore at prey. Fish and waterfowl provided most of their nutrition. Older by at least four days, Phoenix was the first to scramble outside the nursery and begin the process of branching. Flapping and building flight muscle, she moved around the nesting tree.

One windy June morning, she ventured a jump; missed her footing and fell. A soft landing on bluff grasses prevented injury. But solid ground was a whole new deal. Tripping over clown-sized feet, Phoenix stomped about her new domain. She tumbled down a bank. Odds favored survival but achieving first flight from ground level seemed a big ask.

Phoenix found a low, horizontal branch. Leaping up, she gained two feet of height and paused to consider. Her papa watched from the nest. Fifty yards away, mama perched in another bluff pine. Phoenix flapped and flawlessly rose. In 50 yards, she gained 50 feet of elevation and landed (20 feet above her mama) in a tangle of talons and slapping wings. Here the juvenile perched all day. A maiden flight is a leap of faith at the best of times; accidental fledging perhaps requires recovery time. One or both parents sat below her for most of her first day out of the nest.

A week later, sibling Flame’s debut flight and unobserved landing was another drama. Volunteers combed creation for her.  The eaglet’s exit from the nest aimed for a distant bluff tree where sibling Phoenix was being fed. Flame belted to her goal; missed her landing; snatched at a limb and hung upside down before falling below the bluff. Then she disappeared. A day-long volunteer search in triple-digit heat could not locate the juvenile.

Disoriented fledgers are wise to lay low and stay silent. By daybreak, a recovered Flame ignited. I photographed her dusky profile in a waterside pine, not far from her botched landing. An oddity I’d observed during the previous day’s search suddenly made sense: Flame’s parents had alighted on a mid-river island and sat shoulder-to-shoulder for 30 minutes. Their perch was in view of where Flame eventually materialized. At no point did her parents seem agitated. They evidently knew where she was and had faith in her return.

At dawn, the debutante beheld sister Phoenix awaiting a feed on the feeding branch that lured the previous day’s fledge. Hungry and motivated, she launched a mile-long journey to gain 120 feet of height needed for breakfast approach. Her trajectory included crossing the American River. After resting on the opposite bank, Flame barreled back, wingtips slicing the dark mill pond. The juvenile landed brilliantly near papa on the feeding branch. Her sibling had already breakfasted and regained the eyrie.

Mama approached with a second fish and the prodigal screamed welcome. By devious ploy, the huntress wafted over the outraged tyke and baited the way home.  Flame shot off in a piebald blur and soon slam-dunked the nursery.  Her food-frenzy screams reached me from half a mile away.

Hindsight: For almost 24 hours, fledgling Flame was merely invisible to the searchers.

Nature cloaked her. Wariness kept her silent. Vigilant parents kept her in sight. Instinct guided her flawless homecoming strategy. She was never lost. It’s we who were lost without her.

Thanks to everyone who searched, prayed, and became even more aware that this American River family is part of our hearts.