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Environment

Trouble In Bird Paradise: Checking In On Standley Lake's Bald Eagle Nest, One Year Later

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Bill Evans
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50th Space Wing

Bald eagles have been a steady presence at Standley Lake in Westminster since 1993. And in the digital age, a 24-hour eagle cam has brought the Standley Lake birds a loyal national following.

But last April, a disturbance in the nest — in the form of a hostile takeover — rocked the eagle enthusiast world. The drama came shortly before a new generation of eaglets were due to hatch from their eggs. The eagle cam captured it, along with the imagination of eagle lovers across the world.

Lexie Sierra-Martinez is a park ranger at Standley Lake, and she joined Colorado Edition to explain last year’s hubbub and share some updates on the eagle situation this year.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: Let's start at the beginning. Can you give us a synopsis of the eagle drama that started last year at Stanley Lake?

Lexie Sierra-Martinez: Around this time last year, we had two bald eagles that we've had in the park for a few years. We call them Mom and Dad. They had three eggs. Then there was a floater eagle — that's what we call an external eagle that's not part of the park or part of the nesting area.

The name of that floater eagle is now F420. She came in and she basically tried to take over the nest. Her reasons are unknown, but it ended up with an altercation between her and Mom. Long story short, Mom was never seen again.

I have never really seen an altercation between eagles. What was that like?

The initial fight was seen from someone who was nearby in the park. It seems like they were almost falling to the ground in their fight, sort of chasing after each other. It looks like they probably used their talons quite a bit on each other.

There were also some fights later that evening where it's just F420 trying to get into the nest and Dad flapping his wings. Our camera has sound, so we know it was really vocal — they were screaming quite a bit.

Move over, Game of Thrones dragons! And what was it like then for Standley Lake to suddenly become the center of all of this attention and concern from the eagle community?

It was a lot last year. There were lots of news stations calling, lots of concerned people calling the nature center, asking for updates. People were really upset and really concerned.

This was right at the very beginning of COVID. A lot of people were relying on virtual things like an eagle cam for entertainment, comfort and for a sense of normalcy.

These eagles that haven't had an issue in 25 years, and all of a sudden they start having all this drama. It was really upsetting, understandably — to staff, even. We were glued to our computers. I was working at home temporarily. And I had one computer monitor open at all times, just watching the eagle cam.

How many people typically watched the eagle cam? And do you have any idea how much it increased last year?

We have several hundred people who are avid fans that are watching all the time that are active on Facebook fan groups. I would say that during the eagle drama, we probably had several thousand at any given time.

Does that at all translate into more people coming to visit in-person, maybe to try to get a glimpse of the nest?

Oh, yes, absolutely. We've had a 400% increase in visitation just in 2020 — people coming to the nature center asking if they can borrow binoculars.

Is that kind of hostile takeover of a nest in a typical eagle behavior or was that unusual?

Definitely unusual. Not unheard of. We're not really sure what caused F420 to come and take over the nest. She might have lost her nest. She might have had her territory encroached upon. She might have lost her young. But it happened really quickly. Within two weeks of Mom's disappearance, F420 and Dad were acting like a bonded pair.

Well, a full-year cycle has now passed since that drama. Are there any updates in eagle land?

Yes! Two eggs have been laid, which is standard. The first was laid on Feb. 27 and the second one was March 2. There's a 35-day incubation period. So, we are expecting to see one hatch any minute now.

If you were to watch the eagle cam, you can't see directly down into the nest, so you can't see the eggs physically hatching, but you can watch the parents behavior and things to look out for are them circling the nest. They'll turn their heads down, sort of like when you're asking your dog if he wants to go on a walk and he's turning his head towards you. Same sort of behaviors.

Right now, Dad has been bringing a lot of nesting material into the nest — it seems like he just can't get it quite right for whatever reason. It seems like they're really preparing for their eggs to start hatching any minute now.

Last year, there was a lot of hostility towards F420. This year, the public seems to be rooting for her and her forthcoming eaglets. Are eagle fans too fickle?

I wouldn't say that. As humans it’s hard for us to not anthropomorphize. It's our instinct to assign our own behaviors to other species in order to better understand them.

Nothing that F420 did was out of spite or anger. She was just trying to survive. And we want them to succeed at the end of the day. After the fight, Mom was probably put in the same situation as F420.

More than anything, I am just grateful for all the eagle fans that we have. It helps spread awareness for our wildlife, increase protections and helps us educate the public better about how to safely visit the park. So, at the end of the day, even though there was some anger towards F420, it all ended up being positive.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for April 6. You can find the full episode here.

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