About 60 pairs of bald eagles are now on nest duty in the seven-county metro area. This means that 120 of these large, regal raptors are spending a good part of each day perched on or near their large stick nests in deciduous trees or on man-made structures.
It also means you have the chance to catch a glimpse of some of their massive nests. We’ll give you some suggestions — and viewing guidelines.
In nearly every case there’s water near their nests, important to birds whose diet relies heavily on fish.
While eagles can’t be said to mate for life, a pair does show a strong attachment to the nest they’ve worked so hard to build, with each eagle returning to it independently before the start of nesting season. They re-established their pair bond in January and February by engaging in aerial cartwheels and working together to refurbish the nest.
“Adding nesting material shows your potential partner that you’re good at finding things and bringing them to a remembered location,” says Scott Mehus at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn., noting that this indicates that an adult eagle will be a good provider for nestlings.
Eagle nests reach such massive proportions because eagles re-use the same nest year after year, adding sticks and other vegetation in fall and late winter. The average bald eagle nest is 5 feet across and 2 to 4 feet deep.
Both adults sit on their one to three eggs, although females spend much more time incubating than males do. The chicks hatch after about 35 days, and then the real work begins. Both adults hunt for fish, ducks and small mammals to tear into pieces at the nest for their growing brood, and both work to keep chicks warm when it’s cold, or shaded under their wings on hot days.
As recently as 40 years ago, it was nearly impossible to spot a bald eagle anywhere in the metro area. But the bald eagle population rebounded after the early ’70s ban on the pesticide DDT and efforts to clean up waterways. Eagle sightings in our area are becoming almost commonplace, as the raptors fly across freeways and swoop over lakes and rivers, a true Endangered Species Act success story. In fact, Minnesota’s lakes and rivers are so appealing to bald eagles that our state boasts the highest number of nesting pairs in the contiguous United States.
Many bald eagles have become somewhat accustomed to human activity beneath their nest trees, as long as we don’t disrupt their lives. Because of this, and because so many of us are fascinated by these raptors, I’m sharing five locations on public land in the Twin Cities where you can observe bald eagle nests (see below). I scouted these out in February, and can’t promise that each nest will be actively used this spring and summer. In nearly every case, though, the nest successfully produced fledglings in previous years, so chances are good that adults will use it again.
The scouting trips showed me how smart these raptors are: Each nest is built high in a deciduous tree (or on a tall utility stanchion), with a water barrier or traffic flow beneath that should keep humans at bay.
If you want to see eagles around their nests, it’s best to go before trees leaf out, which in many cases will hide their activity. But you have to promise to be on your best behavior:
• Be very quiet, refrain from shouting, clapping or making other noise.
• Stay at least 100 yards away from the nest tree.
• Don’t use a flash if taking photos.
• For Pete’s sake, leave drones at home.
Good luck with the eagle viewing, and please remember: Even though they’re big and may seem unconcerned about human encroachment, too much human activity may cause bald eagles to abandon their nest. A surefire way to get a front-row seat at an eagle nest is to check the Department of Natural Resource’s eagle cam.
Five metro-area eagle nest locations
Lilydale Regional Park
Directions: Located in Ramsey County, south of downtown St. Paul. Drive along Lilydale Road, park in the Pickerel Lake parking lot, then walk about two blocks north and look up at a large utility stanchion.
Observation point: You can see the nest from the parking lot by craning your neck, but a walk of a block or two gives a much better view of the nest near the top of the structure.
Notes: This is one of the best nests for easy viewing, since there are no branches or leaves to obscure the view.
Keller Regional Park
Directions: Located in Maplewood, Ramsey County. Exit southbound Hwy. 61 at County Road B, proceed south to Lower Keller Picnic Area, and park in the lot.
Observation point: Look west across the channel; the nest is in right center of a large deciduous tree.
Notes: Eagles have nested in this area for years, and relocated to this site after an older nest blew down. Once trees leaf out, this nest may not be visible.
Directions: Located just west of the I-35W bridge, along SE. Main Street. Find a parking spot on Main and walk to 6th Avenue SE.
Observation point: The nest is in a large deciduous tree just a bit west and south of the Metal-Matic Inc. plant. Look above the bituminous path to top center of one of the largest trees along the riverbank.
Notes: This nest is the nearest of the five sites to human activity, so it’s important to maintain a respectful distance and not create a disturbance. And watch out for bikes!
Woodview Offleash Dog Area
Directions: Located in Roseville, Ramsey County, between Rice and Dale streets, on the north side of Larpenteur Avenue.
Observation point: The nest is in a dead tree, visible from Larpenteur by looking north across the wetland, or you can reach it by parking in the Woodview Offleash Dog Area parking lot, walking down a steep hill to the bottom and looking eastward.
Notes: Larpenteur is very busy, so be careful if you get out of your car. Eagles are using this fairly recent nest this spring.
Grey Cloud Island Township
Directions: Located in the channel near the juncture of Grey Cloud Trail and Grey Cloud Island Drive in Grey Cloud Island, Washington County.
Observation point: Park in the roadside pullout on the causeway, look across the water to the top center of the largest deciduous tree on an island. Two eagles were visible keeping vigil in February.
Notes: Parking is limited, but this site offers a great view of the nest, until leaf-out.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.