The adorable family story unfolding on Explore.org’s live Osprey nest cam was cut disturbingly short last Friday when a Bald Eagle swooped overhead and snatched both of the baby chicks from their nest. Rachel and Steve, the chicks’ parents, had flown away from the nest just seconds before each attack.
The casualties, named Big and Little, were barely a month old when, in all likelihood, they became dinner for the Bald Eagle, according to Steve Kress, director of Audubon’s Project Puffin.
“The natural world is not the Disney film we all hope for,” wrote Explore.org founder Charlie Annenberg in a statement on Saturday.
The scene of the crime was a nest nuzzled at the top of a 30-foot tower on Hog Island in Maine. The live feed of the nest was configured so that viewers from around the world could tune in 24/7—thanks to infrared technology that kept it bright at night—to watch as the Osprey pair laid and incubated their eggs. The first and second of the three eggs hatched in early June and have been diligently cared for by their parents.
But, late on Friday afternoon, Steve and Rachel flew off, most likely to dive for fish to feed their young (Ospreys rarely leave their chicks unattended, but the birds have to eat). The prowling Bald Eagle took the opportunity to make its move, grabbing one chick and then coming back an hour later for the second.
According to an eyewitness, there was a commotion in the sky during the first attack, accompanied by womping noises and yelping as Steve and Rachel rushed to their chicks’ defense, knocking the eagle almost to the ground, Kress says. Unfortunately, the thief was triumphant and whisked one chick away. Though no humans actually saw the second attack, “one can assume the parents were trying to defend the nest,” Kress says, because they could be heard frantically shrieking in the background.
The camera was zoomed tightly in on the nest, so it’s hard to get “the big picture” of what might have happened, Kress says.
Along with Great Horned Owls, Bald Eagles are Osprey chicks’ main predators—and these birds are so threatening that Osprey chicks have a camouflaged natal down when they are born to help them blend into the nest and avoid such attacks, according to Kress.
While the deaths are no doubt upsetting, the attack is actually a good sign for Bald Eagles in the area, according to Kress. It’s only because Bald Eagles (a previously endangered species) have recovered so well that they’re able to pose a threat to the Ospreys. Bald Eagles have made a comeback in Maine, where there are now more than 700 pairs of eagles, according to the most recent census, up from just a few pairs in the 1960s.
The Bald Eagle seen snatching the chicks may be one of a pair of eagles who are also nesting on Hog Island—or it may have just been a hungry eagle passing through, unable to resist the nesting chicks.
Since the assault both Steve and Rachel have largely stayed put to guard their nest from other Ospreys looking for a new home. Steve has also been seen bringing fish for Rachel, perhaps as some sort of consolation, Kress says.
Rachel and Steve had a third egg, one that didn’t hatch along with Big and Little, and that egg still remains in the nest. The egg didn’t hatch within the normal incubation time, which is not unusual—extra eggs are often laid as a contingency plan. But this contingency plan seems to have expired, as Kress says the overdue egg is no longer viable. “It will degrade into the nest or possibly be removed,” he says.
Steve and Rachel’s fans are hopeful that the grief-stricken parents will return next year and try again.