The young eaglet in the now famous nest near the corner of Sunset Drive and Lurleen Drive took its first flight Saturday.
And the group of photographers who’ve been following the eagle family all along were there to capture it on film.
“We’ve known it was coming for a long time,” said Rocky Baker of Athens, who is one of the leaders of the Guntersville Bald Eagle Photography group. “And it was exciting.”
A young eagle’s first flight is known as fledging.
The baby eagle – called simply “Junior” by the photographers – actually started his first flight on Friday afternoon.
“The ones who were there said Junior was hopping around from limb to limb and practicing flying” Rocky said. “He would go straight up and straight back down, kind of like a helicopter.”
On one of those flights, Junior fell 12 to 15 feet below the nest but caught himself on a limb.
“He spent the night on that limb Friday night,” Rocky said.
Word of the goings on spread quickly among the eagle watchers and a crowd showed up on Saturday.
“Some guessed he would fly that day, some were saying it would be Sunday,” Rocky said. “He would walk up and down the limb. He flew 6 to 8 feet and got on another limb.”
The wind was blowing off the lake directly into the shoreline and the young eagle faced into the wind.
“He spread his wings and seemed to be measuring everything,” Rocky said.
At 1:30 Saturday afternoon, Junior took flight.
“He flew over to the top of the nearest pine tree,” Rocky said. “He gained 30 to 40 feet in elevation to get to the top of the tree.
“It was real exciting,” he continued. “It was what we had been waiting on for weeks and weeks. He sat in the top of that pine tree for about 15 minutes.”
Then one of the adult eagles brought food back to the nest.
The young eagle hadn’t eaten in 24 hours.
“He spread his wings and caught the wind and went in the general direction of the nest, but his flying skills weren’t developed,” Rocky said. “He went way past the nest to the other side of the road.”
Rocky left after seeing that flight, but one of his friends later relayed that Junior returned to the nest and ate about 4:30 p.m.
The eagle group was pleased the first flight went as well as it did.
“I had been a little concerned,” Rocky said. “I’d worried about the young eagle landing on the ground or, even worse, in the road. Mom and Dad know what to do to coach them and get them back in the air, but I’d worried someone with good intentions might have made a bad decision if that had happened.”
What’s next for the eagle family?
“It varies some,” Rocky said. “They could hang around the nest for 2 or 3 weeks or it could be just 2 or 3 days. Most likely they will be gone part of the day and they will return part of the day. Eventually, Junior will learn to catch fish for himself.”
Rocky said the photography group loves eagles and taking pictures of them. And they’ve enjoyed one another’s company with this nest.
“It has been great, for 3 reasons,” Rocky said. “It was a public place. You didn’t have to worry about getting on someone’s private property. It was in a place that was so easy to watch. The nest wasn’t real high in the tree and it was just a pretty place for us to gather. And Guntersville is just a beautiful town. I spend 3 of 4 weekends a month in Guntersville in the winter.”
Rocky became something of an expert on eagles by observing a nest on the Elk River for 13 years for the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources. It gave him unique insights into the majestic birds. He is now one of the guest speakers every winter at Lake Guntersville State Park’s Eagle Awareness weekends.
He said these 2 eagles built this nest last year, but did not lay any eggs in it.
“From their coloration, we knew they were not quite mature last year,” Rocky said.
The pair returned this year, added to the nest and successfully raised Junior.
There was speculation for the longest just how many eaglets were in the nest but it turned out to just be the one.
“We knew there was at least one because we could see the adults that appeared to be sitting on the nest incubating eggs,” Rocky said.
Rocky said it takes about 12 weeks for an eaglet to fledge and he had guessed it would be the 3rd week of March. He nailed the prediction.
Rocky said eagles’ personalities are all different just like people.
Some eagles won’t tolerate human presence near their nests. These eagles didn’t care.
“You have to realize, there were people in the park up and down the walking trail when they picked the spot and built the nest,” he said. “They chose that spot.”
He said eagles in north Alabama seem to favor pine trees near the water. They also like a tree with a wide canopy so they don’t hit their wings coming and going to the nest.
“They liked that tree in that spot,” Rocky said.
And for that, a whole lot of nature lovers in Guntersville are very thankful.