In 2014, a pair of mated Bald Eagles chose the most idyllic of nest sites within the United States’ National Capital, Washington, DC, nestled high in a Tulip Poplar Tree amongst The Azalea Collection at the United States National Arboretum, which is operated by the United States Department of Agriculture. This was the first time Bald Eagles have nested in this location since 1947. This pair raised one eaglet successfully in 2015 and two in 2016.
We want to thank AEF Volunteers and Staff (special thanks to Patty Fernandez & Crystal Slusher), Sue Greeley with the USNA, Dan Rauch with the DOEE, and Craig Koppie with the USFWS, for providing information and photos to help create this “About This Pair” section. Many questions are answered, and explanations given, in our FAQs (PDF file).
Chronology of These Eagles’ Story
2016 – 2017 Season
After several months away from their nesting territory, Mr. President returned to the nest tree on Sept. 13 and was followed by The First Lady on Oct. 11. Since then, they both have been tirelessly carrying-out nest building activities ("nestorations") and adding hundreds of sticks and other soft materials to the interior of nest. The nest is slightly sturdier than last year, due to some natural supports placed in the tree over the summer.
The cams went live to the public for the 2016-2017 Nesting Season on New Year's Eve.
The pair spent the month of January and the first half of February preparing to raise a new family by performing "nestorations," also called nest-building, which consists of adding new sticks and nesting materials to their nest in order to make it bigger and stronger.
In February, the pair continued their nest-building activities by increasing the height of the nest-rails (the stick-railing around the circumference of the nest) to prevent eaglets from falling out prematurely, and they also worked on perfecting the ‘egg-cup,' which is a cozy bowl-like indentation in the center of the nest formed of grass, pine needles, leaves, and other soft materials created for eggs and newborn eaglets. The eagles regularly mated in order to produce fertile eggs.
On January 19 at approximately 6:24 pm EST, The First Lady laid the pair's first egg of 2017. Almost four days later, on February 23, at approximately 4:26 pm EST, she laid their second egg.
2015 – 2016 Season
The First Lady returned to the nest area about September, 2015 to begin rebuilding the nest with Mr. President, who stayed in the area after the first nesting season. They added about 3 feet of new nest rails and fluff to the nest, and then carefully formed the egg cup (nest bowl) for the upcoming season. During their rebuilding, they enjoyed many a meal on the nest, including mink, coot, gull and fish.
On February 10, 2016, the first egg was laid. The second egg was laid on February 14, 2016. The cams went live to the public for the first time on February 15, 2016 and became an instant sensation around the nation.
Both eggs were carefully incubated by both parents. After over a month of incubation, the first egg was hatched on March 18, 2016 as we caught our first glimpse of DC2. Then, two days later, DC3 was hatched on March 20, 2016.
The doting parents were seen carefully feeding both eaglets tiny bites of food, and they took turns brooding their offspring until they were able to thermoregulate their own body temperature.
Much food was brought to the nest by both parents – including a variety of fish, plus squirrel, groundhog – even a crow. The bites of food got bigger and bigger as our eaglets thrived. The minimal sibling rivalry faded away in mere weeks.
The eaglets continued to thrive and grow – pinfeathers grew in their tracts and we watched the feathers unfurl from their sheaths. They grew into their feet and learned to stand and then walk on them.
A “Name the Nestlings” campaign was started and thousands of suggestions rolled in. After the top 5 pairs of names were tabulated, thousands more votes were submitted by viewers for their favorite names. On April 26, 2016, DC2 was officially named Freedom and DC3 was named Liberty.
Unconcerned with their names, Freedom and Liberty began learning how to self feed - how to stand, balance, grip the prey, and tear off bites to eat. Liberty reached that stage first. They were wobbly at first but quickly mastered this step. We witnessed the eating of the “prized” fish tails, to everyone’s delight.
Freedom and Liberty strengthened their wing muscles by flapping their wings, once in a while hitting each other as siblings do. They also practiced hovering – sometimes so high only their feet were seen on screen. Each one took many big hops across the nest and practiced perching on the nest rails and grasping sticks with their talons.
Freedom took the first fledge on June 5, 2016, at 11 weeks and 2 days old, and stayed off the nest several days. Luckily the National Arboretum staff and USFWS staff were able to see him calmly perching in a tree to allay everyone’s worries. The day Freedom returned to the nest, June 9, 2016, Liberty fledged at the age of 11 weeks 4 days old. From then on, it was a daily event to see who flew in, who flew off, who stayed away longer!
The parents continued to bring in food to the nest – which gave everyone a chance to see mantling, the grabbing of food from the parents, and the stealing of food between Freedom and Liberty. Mr. President and The First Lady eventually began the “drop and go” method of delivering food! It was a joy to watch Freedom and Liberty fly in for food – and many times fly off with the food with the sibling following.
They began staying off nest for longer and longer periods of time but they sometimes would return to perch in the natal nest tree. We all appreciated the on-the-ground photos and narratives shared by Sue Greeley/US National Arboretum when she spotted them. This gave us a great view into their life off the nest.
The last sighting of Freedom and Liberty on cam was on July 8th. We all waited to see if they would return; the parents brought in food 3 days in a row, but their offspring did not return to the nest to eat. On July 15th it was announced that they had more than likely begun their migration. If they did not return for food, we would probably not see them in the natal nest tree again. After 5 months and over 63,000,000 views, the cameras stopped streaming an empty nest on the morning of July 16, 2016.
We wished the eaglets safe travels as they began their journey into adulthood and bid farewell to Mr. President & The First Lady for the fall.
2014 – 2015 Season
The story began in the spring when a lone male Bald Eagle started roosting on Kingman Island; it was observed that this male would survey the Anacostia River 4 system on a daily basis and return to Kingman Island every sunset. During the fall Bald Eagles began migrating through the area and it wasn’t long until the male seemed to have found a mate.
In October 2014, the pair was observed flying together and conducting pair bonding flights, according to Arboretum staff these flights went on for a few weeks during September and October. It is also noted that the new pair was defending their future nesting area against migrating eagles.
In November 2014 an ECC (Earth Conservation Corps) member observed one of the Eagles carrying sticks, which indicates nesting building. The pair was not seen in December.
In January 2015, Arboretum staff noticed nest building activities taking place. The staff watched the pair making trips back and forth from the nest site. At the end of January it was noted that one bald eagle remained at the nesting site at all times, which was a clear indication that this pair was incubating. It is unknown how many eggs were laid that first year or when they were laid but according to the 35 day incubation time frame there may have been Eaglets as early as Saturday, March 7th, depending on when incubation began.
On March 2, Craig Koppie of the USFWS by taking an aerial shot of the nest from a helicopter and confirmed that the female was brooding on the nest.
On April 9, wildlife biologist Dan Rauch confirmed the presence of at least one chick from ground photos. The young Eaglet, called DC1, fledged the nest in June.
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Q & A
Q. How many Eagles have nested in the Arboretum in the past?
A. Although we can’t be certain how many Eagles have nested in this specific geographic location we do know that this is the first pair of eagles to nest in the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC in almost 70 years (the last known pair was in 1947; The Arboretum was founded in 1927)
Q. Why did these Eagles choose the National Arboretum?
A.The Arboretum has a number of mature trees that are large enough to support an eagle’s nest. Even though this nest is in an urban area, the Arboretum provides quality wildlife habitat and enough open space to dampen the commotion and noise from the city. Also, the Arboretum’s eastern boundary is the Anacostia River, which is a significant food source.
Q. What kind of food does the Anacostia River provide to these Eagles?
A. There are about 50 species of fish in the Anacostia, some are minnows, alewives and other small fish but there are some like shad, bass, herring, warmouth, gar and American eel that they could catch. We know for sure they are eating catfish, most likely a bullhead type and perch (we saw that when USFWS did their fly over last season, it was sitting on the edge of the nest). It was noted that the eagles may have been feeding on either a female ruddy duck or coot, there was also some herring or ring-billed gull primary feathers in the nest. More information.
Q. What other types of wildlife can be seen along the Anacostia River?
A. The Anacostia River supports 188 species of birds and nearly 50 species of fish. Some of the animals you can see in and along the river include: bald eagles, beavers, white perch, ospreys, striped bass, cormorants, crayfish, herons, turtles, egrets, otters, herring, red fox, shad, kingfishers, and bullhead catfish.
Q. How big is their nest?
A. The current nest is approximately five feet wide by six feet deep. The tree selected by this pair is large enough to support a nest, is within sight distance of the river, and is also located in one of the few parts of the District with limited human disturbance.
Q. What kind of tree are they nesting in?
A. The nesting tree is a tulip poplar tree located on the south side of Mount Hamilton and has a view of the river as well as downtown DC.
Q. Where is the nest and is it safe from human disturbance?
A. Their tree is located on the western edge of the Arboretum’s famed Glenn Dale azalea collection, the destination of springtime visitors to the Arboretum since 1949. The azaleas bloom in late April and early May. Staff from USNA engaged in early consultation with Craig Koppie, US Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office to avoid disturbance and minimize potential impacts to the new Eagle pair. The presence of the Bald Eagle nest so close to Azalea Drive along the south side of Mount Hamilton means the road is closed off to vehicles. A smaller segment of Azalea Drive will be closed to pedestrians because it is within the buffer zone (roughly 660 feet in diameter surrounding the nest site). Visitors can still explore most of the Azalea Collections from the east side trailheads, however, visitors are not allowed to see the nest itself.
Q. How can you tell them apart?
A. The female, aside from being larger, appears to have more of the lighter edging on her feathers, particularly on the back, between the wings.