As a 7-year-old, the only bald eagle Jim Weller could find was on the tails-side of a quarter in his pocket. But he kept looking in vain to spot the real thing soaring over Dayton.
“I would spend hours laying on a hillside waiting to see a bald eagle fly over,” he said. “It didn’t happen until 2008.”
Today the 62-year-old is spending hours at Carillon Historical Park documenting a rare opportunity that anyone in Dayton can share.
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Two bald eagles, dubbed Orv and Willa, built a nest in the park. And soon, one of their surviving eaglets is expected to swoop down from the sycamore tree.
The perch they chose in January is directly above Wright Hall, home to the original 1905 Wright Flyer III, the world’s first practical airplane. The nest is close enough to the park’s sidewalks that anyone can settle down for an afternoon of eagle watching near the vintage gas pumps at the park’s old Sunoco station.
“It is extremely rare they would choose such a public space to nest. This is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be this close to an eagles’ nest,” he said.
Weller, founder of a local group of eagle enthusiasts, first spotted the pair along the Great Miami River over the winter. A self-described “bald eagle nut,” he followed the pair to the park and began documenting their activity in photographs and a blog.
For 70 years, bald eagles were absent in Dayton. The last-known nest was abandoned in 1938, Weller said. It wasn’t until 2008 when a pair later named Cindy and Jim appeared near Eastwood MetroPark.
The Carillon Historical Park eagles may be the offspring of the Eastwood eagles, Weller said. Orv and Willa are a young couple. Weller estimates she’s 5 years old and he’s a few months younger.
“You can tell they’re pair-bonded, which is the term for a life-long mate,” he said. “They spend a lot time together, they tap beaks together, and they bring each other fish. They will also sit together on a branch side by side sometimes scooting right up against each other. They’re just really tender.”
Weller believes this is the pair’s first attempt at nesting and their inexperience caused them to get a late start. The nest, made of layers of sticks and grass, was only 3½-feet wide when eggs were laid at the end of March instead of the typical 5 feet.
Two eaglets hatched at the end of April. It took weeks for them to gain enough size and strength to peek over the edge of the nest and be captured with a telephoto lens by Weller and other eagle enthusiasts.
The bald eagle family has had its share of drama. Red-tailed hawks, who hatched babies at the same time, became aggressive leading to dramatic mid-air fights with Orv and Willa.
One of the eaglets was last seen June 3. It’s unknown if its disappearance was caused by the hawks, great horned owls, sibling rivalry or a storm that may have blown it from the nest.
The bald eagle was chosen in 1782 as the emblem for the country by the Second Continental Congress. At that time there were 100,000 nesting eagles, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
By 1963, the number plummeted to 487 nesting pairs due to lost habitat, shootings and DDT poisoning from eating contaminated fish. The chemical caused thin eggshells that often broke during incubation. Bald eagles were categorized as endangered in most states in 1978.
DDT was banned in 1972, jump starting recovery for bald eagle numbers. In 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
“It’s a joy to see them here,” Weller said. “It’s exciting to see the population return.”
Within weeks, park visitors may glimpse the remaining eaglet make its first flight. It is already beginning to hop about the nest to build strength and exercise its wings.
“He knows he was designed to fly, but he’s not quite there yet,” Weller said. “He’s like a toddler learning to walk, but he’s holding onto the coffee table right now.”
Once the baby starts flying, it will move from tree to tree and return to the nest for food from the parents. In September Orv and Willa will take it to river and teach it to hunt. By October it will have a good start on independence.
“There’s no guarantee the eagles will come back next year,” Weller said. “That’s why it’s important for people who want to see an eagle to do it now.”