Eagles Nesting in Trees and on Beaches

Living near the Chesapeake Bay, I am fortunate to be able to see Bald Eagles most days year-round
when out and about.  I also love to look for and know where many active nests are located.
Scanning the tree tops of their favorite Loblolly pines is perfect now in locating them before
surrounding leafy trees sprout.  Here are a few recent nest photos.

Bald Eagle Nest seen from Observation Boardwalk – Blackwater NWR


Today, the Chesapeake Bay region hosts the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states, where there are over 1200 pairs of Bald Eagles currently breeding.

Another Bald Eagle Nest – Blackwater NWR


Bald Eagle nests average 4-5 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet deep.  An Eagle pair will keep and control their nest year-round.  Each fall, they begin preparing it, adding another 1-2 feet of nesting materials.  By late January to early March, the female will lay her eggs which will hatch in about 30 days.  So our area Eagle nests have chicks in them.  🙂

Interesting fact:  The largest recorded Bald Eagle nest was in St. Petersburg, Florida, at 9.5 feet diameter, 20 feet deep, and weighed approximately 3 tons.  That was one hefty nest!


_DSC0353-2 31719

Another Bald Eagle Nest – Blackwater NWR


I know of several other nests that can be seen from the roads surrounding Blackwater NWR, and
there are many more unseen.  Even while driving backroads, I’ve sighted many nests.
It is pretty cool to see Bald Eagles flourishing, knowing they were at one time on our federal
endangered species list.

Bald Eagle Nest – Queen Anne, MD


Those were all Bald Eagle treetop nests.  I had also mentioned in my post title of Eagle beach nests.

I recently read and thought interesting to share The Center for Conservation Biology’s article
on Eagles beach-nesting on the barrier islands of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a little over a
hundred miles south of me.

Eagles nesting on open beaches?

Read on for the full article and amazing photos.


Beach-nesting Eagles

Eaglet in a new beach nest found on south Ship Shoal Island

Eaglet in a new beach nest found on south Ship Shoal Island by Alex Wilke on 1 March 2019. A horned grebe was the prey of the day in the nest. Photo by Alex Wilke.


The beach nests discovered in early 2019 represent the 4th and 5th ground nests constructed on the Virginia Barrier Islands in recent years.  On 26 April 2013, while flying shorebird surveys along the barrier islands, Bryan Watts and Barry Truitt discovered an eagle nest built on the ground on the north end of Little Cobb Island.  On 5 June 2013, while conducting surveys for beach-nesting birds, Ruth Boettcher discovered an eagle nest built on the ground on Cedar Island.  On 1 June 2018 Bryan Watts and Bart Paxton, while flying colonial waterbird surveys, located an eagle nest built on a log on the back side of Wreck Island.  These previous ground nests were in the dunes or on the back side of the islands.  What makes the two new nests different is that they were located between the primary dune and the active surf zone, a position subject to overwash during high tides or storms and a place normally reserved for nesting plovers, terns, and oystercatchers.


Nest out on the beach on north Smith Island

Nest out on the beach on north Smith Island with adult brooding small eaglets on 30 March 2019.  Photo by Bryan Watts.


Adult attending young on nest built on a log along the edge of the marsh on the back side of Wreck Island

Adult attending young on nest built on a log along the edge of the marsh on the back side of Wreck Island – 30 March 2018. Photo by Bryan Watts.


As with the other sea eagles, bald eagles are tree nesters.  Outside of the treeless Arctic, ground nests are very rare.  Only a few have been found since the late 1800s, and most of these have been on predator-free offshore islands with examples coming from British Columbia, coastal Texas, and isolated mangrove keys in Florida Bay.  The ground nests represent a larger movement of nesting eagles from the mainland of the Delmarva Peninsula out to the barrier islands.  On a survey of the islands conducted on 30 March 2019, Bryan Watts and Mitchell Byrd located 14 active nests on the islands including 1 nest on Fisherman Island, 2 nests on Smith Island, 1 nest on Ship Shoal Island, 1 nest on Wreck Island, 1 nest on Little Cobb Island, 2 nests on Hog Island, 1 nest on Revel Island, 2 nests on Parramore Island, 2 nests on Wallops Island, and 1 nest on Chincoteague Island.  All of these nests had either young or incubating adults.  Despite the abundant prey around the islands, there is little recorded history of eagles nesting on the islands.  Prior to 1960 we know of a single record of a pair on Parramore Island.  Beginning in the mid-2000s pairs started to nest on a couple of the northern islands, and by 2010 a pair colonized Parramore Island.  By 2011 there were 4 nests on the islands and by 2016 there were 11 nests.


Adult attending young eaglet on a nest in the dune of Little Cobb Island.

Adult attending young eaglet on a nest in the dune of Little Cobb Island. Photo by Bryan Watts.


Please remember to always keep a safe distance from active eagle nests – for your safety and to avoid disturbing the nesting pairs and their young.  Please also remember that most of Virginia’s barrier islands are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Use policies and seasonal closures are in place to protect nesting birds – contact the appropriate organization for more information.



54 thoughts on “Eagles Nesting in Trees and on Beaches

  1. You are becoming an expert about Ospreys and Bald Eagles! Good for you my friend. These birds are so beautiful! Take care… 🙂

    • Thank you, Jane! I did not either, can you imagine coming upon one?! It’d be quite memorable. 🙂 But I’d surely keep my eye to the sky for any Eagle attacks defending their territory, lol.

  2. I am surprised at how huge eagle’s nests can be. I was looking for an eagle’s nest as described by a friend and saw a large one, but but wasn’t sure. I scanned the tree tops and and wow! there it was , at least 5 feet wide.. Never heard of a nest on a beach-pretty amazing shots and kudos for your research! Hm-m-m, I wonder if Beau and Bella could fly over, at a safe distance, and take some tips on nest-building?

    • Their nests are indeed amazing. We road out around an area yesterday that we hadn’t for a while and we saw three more Eagle nests I didn’t know about. I’m forever scanning tree tops and into through the woods looking up.

      I’ll pass on the hint to Beau & Bella! 😉

    • Oh my, I would love to see their fascination and puzzled looks watching your stunt kite action! I hope Eagles continue to flourish; every time I see one, and it could be daily, I still get excited and shout out, “Eagle!” 🙂

  3. I guess if there are no predators and lots of prey then it makes sense for the eagles to ground nest on treeless islands, the one on the beach is a bit risky though.
    I know someone who could learn a thing or two about nest building!

    • I thought it quite risky, too, being out on the beach with extreme weather and higher tides/waves. They can’t possibly last in time like a tree top nest. I’m hoping the CCB continues to update on these beach nests. The Chesapeake Bay (other side of the strip of land/barrier islands also has uninhabited islands, it could start a new trend for the growing population.

      I’m sending a note out to Beau today to check out the local nests, both the Osprey and Eagles! 😉

  4. I’ve never heard of a eagles nest being on the ground before! As long as its an island and has no ground predators I suppose they would feel comfortable enough with building one on the ground.
    Were you in a helicopter to take those aerial shots or did you use a drone?

      • very! I talked a friend of mine who is recognized as a leading authority on birds for the west coast yesterday and he was surprised as well. We both agreed that it had to be a island with no trees and no ground predators.

        • The beach nests are on several different islands. It is a huge area of marsh, water canals, and uninhabited islands close to inland, where several protected Wildlife Managements have been created. All along the narrow inland there are more Eagle nests, and then the Chesapeake Bay just a hop-skip-jump from there. Since birds are creatures of habit, maybe also young Eagles are returning and living/building on beaches nearby their birth nests? I love how wildlife keeps us guessing! 😊

          • now I’m wondering if you have the largest collection of land nests for eagles? There can’t be too many other locations but I must admit I haven’t searched?
            I hang around animals more than humans and as a result have noticed many things I otherwise wouldn’t of. Our knowledge of wildlife is limited because we simply do not hang out with them.

          • I believe in the United States, the largest population of Eagles is in Alaska. And I agree, wildlife knowledge is limited to only those that can be watched daily. With the technology of webcams, we get to see so much within their ‘homes’, pretty neat-o!

          • So your saying the largest “ground nesting” population of eagles is up in Alaska?
            I know Alaska has the largest population of tree dwelling eagles in the States but thats because the breeding population in the lower States has been decimated by DDT,habitat encroachment,hunters,farmers and others who want their feathers for ceremonial reasons. The feathers fetch a very high price on the black market!
            The eagles up in Alaska are also larger in size.The closer you go to either pole the larger the animals get.

          • I’m sorry, I missed the ‘ground’ word! I’ve read that Eagles will ground-nest on coastlines in Alaska and Canada but I didn’t find any photos of such; I can imagine they are hard to find with the rugged land. The beach nests I shared off Virginia’s Eastern Shore barrier islands is ‘newly’ found in last couple years, I am sure they will be followed, and other uninhabited surrounding islands will be searched from air. But only as they are able to with the the laws in effect.

          • that area may be the largest ground based eagle nesting area in the world? It would be interesting to find out if that is true?
            I guess any place with many isolated islands would be the place to start looking. I bet the bid experts who found those nests would know more! Can you contact them?

          • It would be interesting to know! Alaska and Canada has many unreachable, rugged coastlines. I couldn’t find a research group up there putting forth any efforts to locate them, although it’s stated Eagles do it there too . The Center for Conservation Biology http://www.ccbbirds.org (who ‘found’ the beach nests) has an email subscription where you can subscribe to their news feed articles. It will be interesting to see what else they may ‘find’ throughout the rest of this season. 🙂

  5. This is so interesting – to think that they would be nesting on the ground after years in the trees. I guess it shows their adaptability to change. Thanks for sharing your nest pictures as well as the article!

  6. Doesn’t that beat all? I’d never heard of ground nesting eagles before. I wonder if they are there because the fishing is good despite the fact that there are no trees or are they being pushed out of prime nesting areas by others? Nature always amazes us!

    • Nature is indeed amazing! 🙂 The barrier islands are along the narrow eastern shore land of Virginia, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. With the huge population of Eagles around the Chesapeake Bay region, I’m guessing it’s more on finding new prime nesting areas. The Chesapeake Bay itself in the last few years increased in record high quality readings. The abundance of Eagles and Osprey proves the fish are healthy and growing in population as well. An ecosystem that is finally working for the benefit of both wildlife and humans!

  7. It sure is good to see how well the eagles are doing there now. It’s the same here. THe beach nesting is really interesting: I had no idea!

  8. You’re just making me miss the eagles nest back at my previous house where I watched a pair raise several batches of youngsters. Who would have ever expected to find a nest on the beach. That’s pretty wild! Great post!

    • Oh, I’m sorry, Gunta, I bet they miss seeing you too! I hope that Eagle pair is flourishing well and on their way with another season’s of youngsters!

      With the beach nests, I wonder if along Oregon and Washington more-deserted coastlines and cliffs if any Eagles could be doing the same thing? Wildlife keeps us guessing for sure! 😊

  9. Most interesting post Donna, especially seeing the size of these nests, and the beach locations. This is quite unusual behaviour. I suppose the absence of tall trees and predators led to this choice.

    • Thank you, Ashley! I thought it also seems more risky with extreme weather generating from the Atlantic Ocean. The barrier islands are more in a large clump with lots of marsh and water canals. The other side of these islands and land strip of Virginia is our Chesapeake Bay and even more uninhabited islands (I wonder if those islands have been researched?). The Chesapeake Bay water quality is at record highs. With the abundance of fish, so now are the record high populations of Eagles as well as Osprey. It is a good feeling to know the ecosystem is working well now, because the government continues to give lower funds to support it. There are a lot of private groups that do continue to assist and research, thank goodness!

  10. It just dawned on me Donna that the eagles that have chosen to nest on this isolated beach have done so because there are no animals running around. I see a close up shot of a nest with a eaglet in it.I’m sure the parents are close by watching. I wonder if disturbing this area will affect the eagles enough that they might move house now that animals are running around? They may stop nesting on the ground now that there are ground predators running around or at least thats what the eagles will be thinking. (even if the people do not physically disturb anything)
    I also see shots from above. I assume this was done by a drone. The eagles are looking up and I bet they are scared of the sound.
    Normally a eagle has recourse to a high tree if disturbed but on the ground they are vulnerable. I assume anybody with a boat could now go out to these islands?

    • The ‘normal’ animals on the ground are primarily marsh critters and coastal bird nestings. Check out Googles Map and search Eastern Shore of Virginia, Virginia. You will see the barrier islands to the right on the Atlantic Ocean side midway to the bottom of that strip of land. You can then search & see where each island is that is hosting an Eagle beach nest: Little Cobb Island, 1, VA; Wreck Island, 1, VA; Smith Island, 1, VA; Ship Shoal Island, 1, VA; and Cedar Island, 6, VA. They are spread out pretty well.
      The Virginia barrier islands are owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Commonwealth of Virginia. There are strict policies and seasonal closures in place to protect all nesting birds throughout the islands. The CCB had support in doing fly-overs of the islands for nest counting. The Eagle nests are isolated, in and around marsh, mud, and water channels, nothing pleasant for humans. I am sure the areas are not being disturbed, and there is no one running around or boating up to/near these nests.
      After checking out Eastern Shore Virginia, search Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Cambridge, Maryland, which is where I see/photograph most of my Eagles and other beautiful wildlife. 🙂 An awesome place!!

  11. These pictures are incredible. It’s just amazing that they are nesting in trees and on the land and beach. It’s so beautiful to see! So glad you shared this 🙂

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