DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
LLANO — As Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife technician Dale Schmidt checked the area along the Llano River where two nesting bald eagles set up home during the winter, he made an upsetting discovery.
The pecan tree in which the eagles built their nest had collapsed.
“The tree itself had already been rotting when they built the nest in it,” he said. “I think I pinned it down to about three weeks ago (as of Aug. 26) that I believe we had some strong winds that blew the tree over.”
The two eagles — a male and a female — began catching the public’s attention as early as 2004 after they built a nest in a large oak tree just a hundred yards or so off Texas 29 between Llano and Buchanan Dam. The spot provided the eagles a location near the river for hunting but also a place people could easily observe them without disturbing the two birds.
Year after year, the female would lay eggs, giving people a chance to watch the newly hatched eagles — or eaglets — grow and eventually learn to fly before the group left each spring for their summer habitat.
“They are a tremendous draw,” said Annette Gardner, the Lake Buchanan-Inks Lake Chamber of Commerce manager. “I counted one month that we had 1,410 people come through our office on their way to see the eagles. The eagles are even a bigger attraction than the wildflowers.”
Gardner said people begin calling the chamber in each September to find out if the two eagles have returned. She said the nesting pair typically returns in late September or early October each year.
“But I usually tell them it won’t be until November when you can really see them on the nest much,” she said.
The Highland Lakes attracts eagles during the winter months, making them some of the most talked about and loved Winter Texans. Along with this particular nesting pair, bald eagles often settle along the upper reaches of Lake Buchanan and the Colorado River during the winter. The lake and the river provide a natural food source for the bald eagles.
A water source is a determining factor on where eagles build nests.
“There has to be water within a mile of a tree in order for eagles to build a nest in it,” Schmidt said. He recalled finding another nesting pair of eagles in the Llano County area. This couple, however, were a bit younger than the Texas 29 duo and didn’t have the experience or nest-building wisdom.
“When I GPS-ed the nest, I realized it was more than a mile from Lake Buchanan or any river,” Schmidt said. “And after awhile, sure enough, they realized it was too far away and abandoned it.”
Gardner, a regular visitor to the Texas 29 nesting area, said she and others find the bald eagles interesting and exciting. She enjoys watching the adult eagles and especially the eaglets as they first emerge to when they “earn” their wings. Each year is fraught with drama.
“There was one year when one of the little eagles fell out of the nest,” she said. “Then there was another year when one of the eaglets just wouldn’t fly. They ended up staying a month later because of that. The mother eagle even quit feeding the young one, just to try and get it to fly.”
Eventually, the eaglet did fly.
The loss of the nesting tree means the Texas 29 pair will be homeless upon return.
But Schmidt said all is not lost.
“This has happened before,” he said. “This (pecan tree) was actually the third tree. So, they will likely build a new nest.”
In fact, he pointed out the eagles’ initial nest near Texas 29 is still standing, though extremely deteriorated.
Since this year’s home will be a new one, Schmidt said it won’t stand out the first year like the previous ones. He explained eagles typically return to the same nest each year and add on to the structure. So a nest can eventually become the size of a pick-up truck bed.
“This year, it won’t be as big as that,” he said.
The question remains where the two eagles will rebuild. All it has to be is within a mile of a lake or a river.
“So will it be visible from the road?” Schmidt asked. “I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Go to www.buchanan-inks.com or call Gardner at (512) 793-2803 to find out more about these two bald eagles and their nest as well as other birding opportunities in the area.