The Cruising Guide to the Nova Scotia Coast
Bald Eagle in the Bras d'Or Lakes
Bald Eagle | Pygargue à tête blanche | Kitpu | Iolair
by David Harris in 2014
In the 1970s through the 1990s bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were a rare sight throughout most of North America. Through that same period they were a common sight in the Bras d'Or watershed. In fact eagles from Cape Breton nests were flown to Massachusetts and were the main factor in replenishing that eagle population.
The rich waters of the Bras d'Or allow large numbers of eagles to nest here. Nests are sometimes found on the lake edge but usually are found back from the waters edge, often up the ravines of the small brooks and rivers that climb from the shoreline inland. Nests are usually in a mature pine or hemlock, but can be in almost any type of tree that is large enough to house a nest that can be upwards of six feet in radius. From the nest site there is usually a wonderful view of the Bras D'Or as this is the major feeding area of the family.
In late February or early March the eagle pair begin to repair the nest. By late April 1 to 4 eggs are being brooded. Four young have never been hatched here but often 3 young are raised. An average of slightly more than two young are produced from nests in most years although the severity of the late winter and spring may cause this average to drop some years and rise in others. The eagle pair's home range is usually around a kilometre in radius. Within that area there are often two nests, one of which will be vacant, although it may have been the active nest the year before. It is believed these alternate nest sites help eagles keep louse and flea numbers down on their young as a year without hosts thins out the numbers of these parasites.
A portion of every eagles territory is on the Bras D'Or edge. The adults and later the young can be seen roosting at the waters edge often for hours at a time. A quiet sail boat can often ghost quite close to these birds. Eagles are patient often waiting hours for food to show up. Collections from nest sites have shown us that cod, flounder and eels make up the majority of an eagles diet although many other foods have been found in some nests. In a nest very near a Great Blue Heron colony evidence of over a dozen young herons being the majority of the food for that nesting pair indicates eagles will utilize whatever food source is easy. Eagles are scavengers it often takes more energy to kill something than to find it or steal it. A recent phenomena shows up to forty eagles, mostly adult, gathering on the Bird Islands, just beyond the Great Bras D'Or channel, in July to prey on the young of gulls, kittiwakes and other birds nesting there.
By late July the all dark young of the year are learning to fly. There are many anecdotes of boaters seeing an awkward flying juvenile crashing into a tree, barely managing to land. These test flights are often fatal. In fact band returns indicate over twenty percent of young do not survive their first flight and the first month of flying is hazardous to many. The young that survive will migrate away from the Bras D'Or and travel throughout the Maritimes for their first couple of years. In one case a nestling travelled almost across the continent showing up in Idaho.
Young usually come back to nest where they learn to fly. At the age of five sporting a white head and tail adults pair up and begin their breeding life. For the next often close to two decades they will nest in the watershed. Outside of the nesting season they will maintain residence as close to the nest site as they can find food to sustain themselves. They can occasionally be spotted doing their slow butterfly-like swim stroke transporting a too large food item to shore. There they will sit during themselves and digesting the meal. While boating around the lake make sure to be on the lookout for these majestic residents of our waters. Extra fish are often accepted with a lovely wing wide-spread talon grasping dive very close to your boat that will be the image you remember when you think of your time sailing on the Bras d'Or inland sea.