Patience pays off with early eagle chick sighting for Salem volunteers

Heather King kept a close eye on the eagles at Minto-Brown Island Park for weeks. Though it was early in the season, she was fairly sure the couple living there had an egg incubating, because the pair was staying close to the nest at all times.

So when King spotted the eagle chick’s head peeking above the nest last week, she felt “vindicated.”

“I’m guessing that the egg was laid much earlier than any of us guessed,” she said.

King and her husband Scott are among a team of 150 Salem volunteers who record data about the city’s resident eagles for the city Parks Department.

The city announced the eagle chick in a newsletter last week, spotlighting a program that’s now in its second season.

Salem’s largest stretch of park is home to two eagle nests — one at Minto Brown on city property, and a second nest visible from Riverfront Park located on Salem Audubon Society land, said Amanda Sitter, the city’s parks volunteer coordinator.

Because the parks are highly trafficked and eagles are federally protected, the city last year began a volunteer monitoring program to observe the nest during mating season, tracking the eagles’ behavior and responses to people. The Minto nest has been there for about a decade.

Eagles mate for life and often return to the same nesting site year after year. Salem’s eagles aren’t tagged, so there’s no way to be certain the same couple has remained at Minto the whole time, but Sitter said that’s likely.

This year, volunteers are monitoring both nests daily for six hours per day. Volunteers record what the eagles are doing, like sitting on the nest, fishing nearby or not visible — and how many people pass by on nearby trails.

“This is so relaxing, it’s almost like a mindfulness exercise in that you need to be specifically watching for certain things for two hours straight,” King said. She recalled with awe watching one of the eagles dive for a fish, fly to the island to eat and return to the nest, allowing the other eagle to leave and catch a fish of its own.

King and her husband are both avid birdwatchers, with a garden at their west Salem home designed to attract hummingbirds. She retired from a data collection manager job in the Oregon Department of Transportation just a few months before the Covid pandemic hit.

“I stopped work and the world stopped all at the same time,” King said.

After being relatively sequestered for almost three years, King said they were looking for ways to get back into the community in low-risk settings.

The couple has traveled to Klamath Falls to watch eagles before, but King said she had no idea eagles nested in Salem until she saw the city’s call for helpers.

“It’s pretty fun. It’s so neat that this is happening every day in downtown Salem. Who knew?” she said.

Bald eagles lay eggs in the spring and incubate for about a month before chicks hatch. Sitter said it’s more common in the Salem area for chicks to hatch in July, though earlier isn’t unheard of.

“We are actually super surprised that we have baby chicks right now,” she said. It’s possible the eagle couple will have a second chick later in the year.

Last year, the city closed portions of trails at Minto Brown so the eagles wouldn’t be disturbed while nesting. Because volunteer data showed the eagles appeared unbothered by human activity, the city has reopened trails this season while keeping a close eye on the nests.

Sitter said there’s been no effort yet to name the eagles, though she’d like to in the future so Salemites feel more connected to the birds.

“The eagles keep coming back. I’m no bird expert but I think they wouldn’t be coming back if they didn’t feel protected,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

SUPPORT OUR WORK We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.