What Happened to Sur at Surrey Reserve
(posted December 20, 2021)
As some of you know, we haven't had a confirmed sighting of the resident male Sur since mid-November 2021, and we're seeing a new male bringing food to resident female Res, and doing a bit of work on the nest. We've had a number of questions about that, and I'm hoping this post will provide some answers - or at least a context as we watch to see what happens next.
As personal background, I (JudyB) am a volunteer admin on the Hancock Wildlife forum and website, and have been watching eagle cams since 2006. I am not an expert (I don't have formal training or related work experience), but I have learned a lot from those who are as well as from everyone who posts observations to help us all learn more about eagles and other wildlife. So - I don't actually know what happened to Sur, but do have some thoughts and history to share.
David Hancock and his team put cams on the Surrey Reserve nest in the summer of 2018, and we met the resident pair (with the male named Sur for Surrey and the female Res for Reserve) that fall. They laid two eggs the following spring, and fledged two chicks that year, and did the same in 2020 and 2021 (though not without drama, but I'm trying to write a post, not a novel).
Sur and Res returned as usual in the fall of 2021, and began working on their nest, as normal. Then, on November 11, we saw an eagle on the nest who did not look like either Sur or Res. And the next day, November 12, we saw a series of confrontations, with an adult on or near the nest and another one flying at him (we think) and both sort of tumbling off and flying away. We are not positive, because many of the visits to the nest in the next week or two were at dawn or dusk, when it's harder to know who is who, but I personally don't think we've seen Sur since those confrontations on November 12, though there were a couple of times I could not say for sure which eagle we were seeing. Our Notable Dates thread
has links to posts about some of these events with screenshots and videos - and if you look through the forum posts, you'll see that it took us a couple of weeks to be sure who was who and what we were seeing.
On November 21, an eagle who was not Sur (and who looked to us to be the other eagle we had been seeing) brought food to the nest, and Res claimed it - which helped us confirm that the third eagle was a male, and had challenged Sur - and apparently had won. Res has a feather that sort of sticks up on the top of her head (we call it her "cowlick") - and it's sometimes hard to see when the cam is in grayscale with the infrared light at night, but during the day it's often pretty distinct - so at that point we were sure it was Res we were seeing with the new eagle.
It's now December 20. The new male is still around, and he and Res appear to be developing a relationship - though it's still several months until we would expect her to lay eggs, and anything could happen. We did check with the local wildlife rehab center, and they did not get any reports of an injured (or worse) male from the area around the Surrey Reserve nest around the time Sur went missing - so he may have decided to leave; it's hard to tell, but the new male may be slightly larger and stronger, though Sur was a large strong male. He also may have been injured and went off to heal - in which case there could be a round two. Or he may have died, though we are all hoping he's OK.
As you may know, eagles mature more slowly than some other birds - there are occasional exceptions, but generally they don't mate until they are at least five years old, and it's often 6 or 7. So - in terms of the survival of the species - their instincts tell them that once they've reached breeding age, their job is to stay alive, find a partner, and produce little chicks with their genes. They will fight fiercely to defend their nest and their chicks - but they won't necessarily sacrifice their own life in a fight they can't win. If you've ever watched a video of eaglets being banded, where the bander goes into the nest - you'll see that the eagles dive at that person (most of them wear some form of protective helmet) - but I don't think I've ever seen one actually strike the much bigger human.
Which is a really long way of saying that it is possible that Sur decided (or instinct led him) to leave, knowing he would eventually find another partner with whom to create chicks who would carry his genes. It may be more likely that he was seriously injured and did not survive - and is possible that he was injured but will return to try for a rematch after he heals - but I personally prefer to think that he decided to leave (not sure how to say this without risking copyright issues, but Kenny Rogers had a song with the line "know when to walk away and know when to run" - I like to think that Sur chose to leave and will find a new mate and live happily ever after, even though the odds are probably against that).
Which gets us to the question - "don't eagles mate for life?" In many cases it seems that they do - but I learned years ago that at least some biologists believe that eagles don't necessarily bond with their partners as much as they develop a bond with the territory. At this point in time, I don't think we have enough eagles with trackers to know where adults go in the late summer/early fall when eagles in BC go off to follow the various salmon runs to rest and recover from the energy spent raising their chicks - but it's quite likely that pairs take separate vacations, so to speak, and meet up again at the nest in the fall. I absolutely believe that on some level Res would prefer to be with Sur; the two of them have worked out how to build a nest without one of them hitting the other over the head with a stick (humanizing analogy - but they have figured a pattern that works for them). And adjusting to a new partner does involve a learning curve. But in the years that I've been watching, I've seen a number of mates being replaced, and can only think of once or twice when (maybe) an eagle gave up their nest to go with a defeated mate. And even though we have really good cameras, we only see a fraction of what's going on in the lives of the eagles.
Which reminds me that I forgot to mention that it is not Res's job to help Sur fight off a male who wants to take his place. Res's instincts tell her that she needs the best possible male to help make sure her genes survive - and if Sur can't chase the intruder off now, he wouldn't be able to protect the chicks if the intruder came back later. When there are eggs and especially when there are chicks, the game changes a bit - Res still might not tangle with a male trying to take over the territory, but she would absolutely protect her chicks. And the male of a nest would do his best to protect chicks from an intruding female, though that's a harder task, given that females are bigger and stronger in general. There are not eggs or chicks to defend, so, for better or worse, Res is not going to get involved in a fight between two males (and Sur would stay clear if someone had challenged Res).
Wow - this is looking a bit like a novel - I'm afraid I do ramble on. But I love sharing the information I've learned, as others have shared it with me.
I have to say this is not the startup to a new season I was expecting, or the one I would have chosen if given a choice - but the eagles get to decide, and thanks to the cameras, we get to go along for the ride. I'm hoping that the rest of the season will be much more peaceful, hopefully with little chicks becoming mighty eagles in just 12 weeks!
We would love to have more people posting observations - if you've been peeking in to see what's happening, please do consider joining us! Thanks!