The 2023 Bald Eagle nesting season in Florida officially ended on May 15, but don’t tell the eagles! Faithful volunteers for the EagleWatch Program continue to monitor 18 nests that still had chicks present in May. Many of these late-nesters are second attempts after their first nest failed, while others are eagles that faced setbacks from Hurricane Ian and got a late start on nesting. As the EagleWatch Program Manager, I am now hard at work going through the more than 22,000 nest reports to summarize the data and begin analysis.
Although the numbers are not finalized, the season’s theme is clear: resilience. Hurricane Ian hit the southwest coast of Florida in October at just under a Category 5 storm, with heavy casualties and billions of dollars in property damage. Many EagleWatch volunteers in the area lost their homes, as did the eagles. Volunteers documented 144 nests that were lost during the hurricane. Usually when an eagle pair loses a nest, they just rebuild in another suitable tree in the area. In this case, the majority of the suitable trees had also been lost. The eagles persevered and made do with less-than-favorable options, rebuilding nests in spindly trees stripped bare of limbs and foliage. EagleWatch post-hurricane monitoring reports indicate that roughly 70 percent of the pairs that lost their nests were able to rebuild and have fledged more than 100 chicks thus far.
Going with the theme of resilience: for the first time in seven years, a nest in Central Florida successfully fledged a chick! The nest had been active for more than 15 years when the breeding female was killed in a territory fight in 2017. Her death was heartbreaking for the volunteer who had watched this pair raise young for over a decade. The male, affectionately called “Pete” by the volunteer, stayed around the nest for the next seven years, attracting several potential suitors and even going so far as to work on the nest together, but no young were ever produced. We began to wonder if Pete would ever be a dad again. This year we were thrilled to see Pete and a new mate hatch and raise a chick, dubbed “Petunia,” that successfully fledged the nest! Way to go, Pete!
Eagles face many challenges in Florida, including loss of habitat to development and deaths from car strikes and rodenticide poisoning. The EagleWatch Program is the only ongoing nest monitoring program in our state and the data we collect is used by many entities to guide management decisions that benefit the population. In addition to monitoring, volunteers protected nests from illegal disturbances and rescue eaglets that have fallen from nests, giving them a second chance at life. Through it all, the EagleWatch Program will continue to monitor and collect the important data that will ensure that future generations of Floridians will always have the chance to see eagles in our state.