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The Llano bald eagles are back

A pair of American bald eagles have nested near Highlake Lakes for eight years

Mike Leggett

If you want to see an American bald eagle this year, you could wrap up in layers of cold-weather clothing, buy a ticket and take a splashy boat ride around one of the Texas lakes where the birds winter and nest.

Or you could stash the kids in the back seat, grab a pair of binoculars and a camera and take a short day trip up to the Llano River to watch one of Central Texas's great treasures: the Llano eagles.

Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Dale Schmidt says the pair of mature eagles that have thrilled bird watchers for free the past eight years are about to start their ninth season of nesting, right along Texas 29 halfway between Buchanan Dam and Llano.

"I've kind of gotten unofficial word that at least one of them is back already," Schmidt says. "You may not see them right at the nest but they're going to be up and down the river."

The eagles abandoned their old nest just off the highway last fall, Schmidt says, and moved a short distance upriver toward Llano. They are still visible from the Texas 29 right of way, though, and will be spending the next few weeks restoring and expanding the nest, which is composed of layers of sticks and limbs that can weigh as much as a ton.

There are two populations of eagles that spend winters in Texas. Northern bald eagles come to escape the extreme cold and food deprivation of their native habitat. They normally strike out for northern territory sometime in February, Schmidt says.

And southern bald eagles come to nest and raise their young. They will lay their eggs in the dead of winter and nurse and nurture the fledgings until they are able to capture prey on their own sometime next spring.

"They usually lay their eggs around Christmas," Schmidt says. "But this is going to be a strange year. There's not much water in the river and there's no water getting down the river to where they nest. There are dead fish everywhere."

Bald eagles typically nest along rivers and lakes where they can capture fish and turtles, along with any waterfowl that may not get out of the way. Without the water in the river, the eagles may have to work harder for food or even hunt more over Lake Buchanan, which is also short of water, Schmidt says.

But the eagles have a way of surviving. They've been doing this for at least eight years, after all, and they've raised 13 chicks that have left the nest. "This pair has surprised everyone before,"

Schmidt says. "They'll figure something out."

mleggett@statesman.com