Great expectations

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 24, 2013

SALISBURY — Liberty and Justice are no longer empty-nesters.

The bald eagles at Dan Nicholas Park — part of the permanent wildlife exhibit since 2006 — apparently have been doing what comes naturally.

A nest they built together last summer now holds two eggs.

This isn’t quite like waiting for the birth of a panda at the Washington Zoo, but for Rowan County, it’s pretty close.

If eaglets ever are hatched and survive, the plan will be to transfer the youngsters to a place where they can learn to fly, eat and hunt on their own so they can live in the wild.

But many things have to come together first.

There’s no telling for sure whether the eggs are fertilized, but Liberty, the female, and Justice, the male, are taking turns sitting on the nest during this crucial incubation period.

“To me, they are already rock solid,” Nature Center Supervisor Bob Pendergrass says, judging from the attentive behavior demonstrated by Justice and Liberty’s constant warming of the eggs.

She only leaves the nest to stretch her legs and get some food. When she does, Justice takes her place.

“I think they’re fertile,” Pendergrass says of the eggs. “We’ll see what happens.”

Pendergrass predicts a hatching in about four weeks. A bald eagle’s eggs take about 35 days to incubate and hatch. Pendergrass didn’t notice a second egg until last Friday.

Most bald eagles in captivity do not breed, and Pendergrass was pretty positive Liberty and Justice would never be parents.

The park’s Robert Lee Honbarrier Bald Eagle Habitat doesn’t allow room for extended flight, and Pendergrass knew eagles like to take part in aerial courting. Besides, Liberty and Justice are considered “non-flighted,” disabled birds.

As a young bird, Justice took a misstep on a power line and the electrical jolt burned one end of a wing, joints and all.

Liberty fell out of her nest at a young age, was banded and returned to a nest, but a year later she was hit by a car and seriously hurt.

Both bald eagles ended up at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Fla., before recovering and being transferred to Dan Nicholas Park in 2006.

Pendergrass says they could not survive in the wild. Both eagles are 10 years old.

Beyond not having the luxury of an aerial courtship, Liberty and Justice are constantly exposed to all the human activity at Dan Nicholas Park and the ability of visitors to observe them from 15 to 30 feet away.

Pendergrass thought it would cramp the bird’s mating style.

But strange things started happening last summer. In the crook of their artificial tree, Liberty and Justice began building a nest out of grass.

A church youth group then helped by collecting sticks at the park that staff members placed inside the eagles’ habitat.

Within a week and a half, Liberty and Justice had incorporated the whole wheelbarrow load of sticks into their new nest.

The building of a nest after five years without one seemed to be a signal the eagles were thinking about mating. Pendergrass and others also noted some behavior changes before Christmas.

When food for the eagles was left at the usual spot behind the tree, staff members noticed a more defiant attitude from both birds.

“Something had changed,” Pendergrass says, “… and one of the staff thought she had seen them mating.”

In addition, Liberty, the female, was “fluffier” and moving slower.

Pendergrass noticed the first egg in the nest Jan. 12. And though difficult, he was able to climb a limb last Friday to see a second egg. (Two eggs are typical.)

Pendergrass has contacted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s regional office in Atlanta to determine what the park’s permit allows and how it should proceed if eaglets are hatched.

At about 4 weeks old, Pendergrass says, the eaglets will be transferred to the American Eagle Foundation’s sanctuary at Dollywood in Tennessee.

In essence, the eaglets will be introduced to a foster mother and become part of a “hack tower” nesting site overlooking a lake habitat.

From there, they would feather out and learn to fly and hunt food on their own.

American bald eagles, no longer an endangered species, might travel hundreds of miles in any direction before deciding to establish a territory or home. Who knows, Pendergrass says, eaglets born at Dan Nicholas Park could return to a place such as High Rock Lake.

The park staff feeds the bald eagles a diet heavy in fish, rats and chicken. Pendergrass says the parents’ menu may be tweaked a little if eaglets are born so they can be fed more calcium-rich fare.

According to its website, the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville had never hatched an American bald eagle prior to 2006. Since then five eaglets have hatched at the center and been reintroduced to the wild through the hack tower process.

This, of course, would be Dan Nicholas Park’s first eaglets.

Dan Nicholas Park has a 6-year-old web cam in the bald eagle habitat, but Pendergrass says it’s not the best of views. He hopes he can add a new web camera location in coming weeks.

As for predators, the only thing that might threaten the eagles’ eggs would be a rat snake, Pendergrass says.

But no worries. Liberty and Justice would snap the biggest rat snake in these parts as though it were a stick of uncooked spaghetti.

The lesson: Don’t mess with the USA.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or