Conserve Wildlife Blog

Playing Hide and Seek with an Eagle

June 12th, 2021

By Barbara McKee, NJ Eagle Project Volunteer

“Duke’ with transmitter, June 1, 2021 @ Barb McKee

Seven months ago, I learned that “Duke” had flown back to Somerset County in central Jersey, and was perched along the Raritan River not far upstream of his natal nest at Duke Farms.  He was also very close to my home on the Millstone River in Hillsborough.  Thus began my shared adventure with Duke, the 2019 fledgling who was outfitted with a satellite transmitter at banding (E/88) that May. I wrote a CWF blog, “Duke’s” Homecoming in January about those months during the fall and winter, of following and photographing Duke as he explored areas I knew well from bicycling and volunteering for the Eagle Project. I am very grateful and humble to have “found” Duke on quite a few occasions throughout November, December, and January.  The trees were bare of leaves, and Duke’s full attention was on keeping himself fed.  I gradually learned his habits and noted he tended to stick with several favorite roosts, perches, and hang-outs!  It took patience, persistence, and a lot of luck! January 19, 2021, was the last time I saw Duke reasonably close, photographed and videographed him on a field in Hillsborough owned by Duke Farms.  

Following that frigid, breezy, gray day in mid-winter, January 19, Duke headed north to Tewksbury where he spent most of his time on large, private farms and estates not conducive to allowing access to a wandering, eagle-watching, trespassing photographer!  I could imagine he was finding prey in the fields, along the creeks, and in the occasional farm pond.  I took many photos of bucolic scenery to share with others who were interested in Duke’s travels. At the end of January, central Jersey got snow storms which dumped an estimated accumulation of more than 2 feet of snow on the ground.  Animals seemed to vanish.  Even road kill was scarce.  I worried that Duke would starve….that is, until while scrutinizing Google Earth, I realized he had settled on a hunting preserve that raised game fowl!  He simply perched near the pens, let the hawk do the hunting, and no doubt “stole” from the smaller raptors!  I stopped being so worried! For the entire snow-covered month of February, and half of March, Duke remained in Tewksbury.  A couple times he dashed back to Duke Farms (approximately 20 miles to the south) and the Raritan River nearby.  On one of those quick visits to his natal “home” he even visited me, perching again near our landing on the Millstone and downstream near the confluence with the main Raritan. 

The next day, knowing he was still on the Raritan near Duke Farms, a fellow eagle project volunteer and I hiked along the Raritan River Greenway hike/bike trails spotting hawks galore on a cloudy, cold day in mid-February, but no Duke.   That day, Feb. 13, deep into dusk, as we returned to our cars, I took one last hand-held, super zoomed in shot of a large bird in the trees far off across the river.  It was too far away and too dark to tell what it was, but when I downloaded the photo to my computer, I could see that it was definitely a juvenile eagle!  Furthermore, it appeared to have something on its back!  Could it be? 

Later, I learned from the data that Duke had indeed been in the same area along the Raritan at the time I took the photo! I can’t say without a doubt that I saw Duke in mid-February, but I continued to be “it” in my losing game of hide and seek with this eagle! On March 19, 4 months and 2 weeks after flying to central Jersey, Duke left the area of the Lamington River in Tewksbury, and flew to Maryland via what seems to be his preferred route to Pennsylvania, then southeast following a series of “land marks” which I am sure he uses to navigate:  Lake Nockamixon, Peace Valley, and Lake Octoraro, and many small rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds that humans might not even take note of.   After only a week away from central Jersey, he flew back to Round Valley and Duke Farms, and this time went as far north as I had seen him, all the way to Stanhope, Lake Musconetcong, and Lake Hopatcong north of interstate 80.  As if restless, after only a week and a half he flew back south, departing from near Neshanic Station on the South Branch of the Raritan, and following the Sourlands ridge all the way into Pennsylvania, flying directly to the Conowingo Dam where he settled in with the hundreds of other eagles that hang out there catching the fish which pass through the dam’s turbines and emerge alive but stunned and floating–easy hunting for hungry juveniles. Duke spent more than a month in Maryland either at Conowingo or in the area of the Upper (Chesapeake region) Bay formed by the North East River. 

I took a break from searching for him, keeping track of him on my laptop, and seeing to my job of monitoring my now-nesting eagle families in Hunterdon, Warren, and Sussex counties! During the month and a half that he spent in Maryland there were some worrisome moments when he apparently spent too much time on a landfill and even worse, when he perched far too close to the Northeast Corridor—the main railroad line between Boston-NYC-Washington D.C. with its Acela and Metroliner trains going by every few minutes at 150km/hour! Then, on May 20, Duke took to the air and headed back into PA following his usual route, and was soon back on the South Branch and at Duke Farms.  So I was back biking and hiking around areas where he was or had been, photographing trees and scenery, but no eagle!  I wanted to do a follow up blog, but of what?  What news?  I considered a couple photos from December which were not used in my first blog.  Lame! 

“Duke” June 1st @Barb McKee

 June 1, 2021.  I sat watching one of my eagle families nesting in Hunterdon County.  As an eagle project volunteer, I was watching three big beautiful eaglets which were certain to fledge at any moment!   I checked the internet link on my phone, and realized Duke was nearby!  The trees were lush with fully emerged leaves, how could I ever locate him?  This spring, after leaf-out, I had taken many photos of trees where he was perched but camouflaged.  I was losing this game of hide and seek miserably.    Still, he was just up the road.  I had to check.  I drove a quiet, rural road and searching across a farm field to a tree line.  I spotted a large, dark bird in a tree, but through binoculars and scope I could see it was a vulture.  I searched further down the road and….. THERE HE IS! 

“Duke”@ Barb McKee

Thankfully he had chosen a dead/bare tree in which to perch.  Excited beyond reason, I shot a text message and phone photos to Kathy Clark, Larissa Smith, and Duke Farms nest monitor and fellow eagle project volunteer Diane Cook.  It is so much more rewarding to share this amazing sight with others.   To Diane I said, “Get in your car now, and race over here. Now!”  We were quite close to Diane’s home!  She made it in time to share. It was quite the thrill of once again seeing Duke in the wild, thriving, looking beautiful, healthy, and like the confident, independent eagle he has become.  

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5 Responses to “Playing Hide and Seek with an Eagle”

  1. Betty OBrien says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your adventures with us! An amazing story!

  2. Anne Woolley says:

    What a captivating and well written story about Duke. Sadly his sibling fell from the nest in a shoving match with Duke and was never seen again. And so many felt the GPS tracker was so wrong, but what we have learned. So interesting that he returns home so often. Thank you, Barbara, for your perseverance to find him. Just wonderful~

  3. Barb McKee says:

    Anne, I also saw E/87 when she left the nest for the first time. It did appear to be accidental, but at her age, she almost certainly would have glided or flown to another perch. I would like to believe that she successfully started her journey to being an independent eagle that day. I have seen the same scene at other eagles’ nests on web cams: Younger male flies early, but returns and stays a long time after first flight, begging for food. Older female, is more reluctant to fly at first, but once she does, she doesn’t stick around. Let’s hope someone, somewhere, gets a photo that captures her band number and reports it to us!

  4. Debra says:

    I saw the incident with his sister and it looked to me like she tried to fly from the middle branch to the lower left one and missed. I too hope she flew off, but it was sad since she never returned.

  5. Richard A Benson says:

    Thank you sooo much for the pics and info on Duke, glad he is well