The subtle shift from late summer to autumn, in the salt marsh, may go unrecognized by all but the most ardent observer. But, like every other season, there is much to witness.
An environment that constantly transforms, the Lowcountry tidal salt marshes are dynamic. Populations of dolphin shift, migrating birds return and fishing strategies change. The once verdant grasslands become fields of gold.
A welcomed sight, for me, is the return of a large majestic raptor. Soaring with intention, wings spread flat and wide, identity uncertain, until I see the flash of white on head and tail.
Bald Eagles begin their return to the coastal Lowcountry in late August, having spent the summer months in and around the Chesapeake Bay. They are our earliest nesters. They re-establish their pair bonds, engage in courting behaviors and cooperatively refurbish their nest in late fall and early winter.
Typically, two eggs are laid in huge nests most often built in crags of dead (or minimally foliated) trees high above the ground. Both male and female care for the eggs, carefully folding their talons under their feet to prevent piercing the precious eggs. Incubation generally continues for a month. Chicks are nurtured by both parents and remain in the nest for another two more months or so.
Fledglings prepare to leave the nest in March and April.
What a sight to see, in early spring, the stretching and flapping of the fledglings as they prepare to fly off on their own. Fledges, by the way, are adult-sized when they leave the nest. And, with the additional down and somewhat longer tail (all the better for the first flying lessons) they appear to be even bigger than the adults. The distinctive white head and white tail are adult plumage; it will be several years before the juveniles acquire it.
My first sightings of the Bald Eagle this year occurred in late August.
I was delighted to watch, on one occasion, a single bird circling perhaps 50 feet above the surface of the water. Then, with clear intent, the eagle focused on a singular disturbance on the calm water. Extending both legs then talons forward, it swooped down and captured a fairly large redfish from the river. Wow!
While it is not unusual for me to see eagles, I rarely see this behavior in our area. To the best of my knowledge, eagles prefer carrion, or dead stuff. Researching this, I learned that eagles prefer live quarry during mating season. In the off-season become rather lazy and shift their diet to carrion. Learn something new every day!
Written by Capt. Patte Ranney. Outside Hilton Head has provided personalized adventures for over 30 years. Offering kayak, fishing, nature and dolphin tours to kid’s camps, history excursions, family outings and stand-up paddleboarding. “The Island’s outdoor outfitter” also offers an outstanding selection of clothing and gear for men, women and children at their store in the Plaza at Shelter Cove. For more information, call 843-686-6996 or go to outsidehiltonhead.com.