Can you Guess this Mystery Raptor?

As I stroll down a peaceful Wisconsin Dells road framed by giant pine trees, a high-pitched squeal draws my eyes upward. Can you guess which bird flies above me? It has a seven-foot wingspan and is heading toward the river where its keen eyes can spot a tasty snack from a mile away. It will plunge into a deep dive, talons outstretched for the fish, and then swoop up just as quickly.

The bird’s scientific name is Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and it’s worthy of such an impressive name. I’ve visited this column’s mystery bird and its mate’s eyrie (nest) for several years. They have quite a love story.

Ornithologists believe these raptors, like swans, geese, and black vultures, mate for life. My husband and I visited an eyrie similar to this one while we were on our honeymoon, 46 years ago. Curious to see if it was still there, we returned last year. We were happy to see it is still active. It’s in the same tree and generations have added to it, so it’s huge. Researchers have measured nests 10 feet across and 20 feet deep. Some are estimated to weigh two tons! 

The pair I’m watching hasn’t had it easy. In 2022, heavy winds destroyed their nest. They weren’t able to raise young. Being the tenacious birds they are, though, they rebuilt. 

Our mystery raptor was on the endangered list but managed to survive habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and the insecticide DDT, which caused its eggshells to be fragile and break. Since we humans have corrected our ways, this survivor has flourished. 

The female incubates the eggs in March and April. The male vigilantly brings her tasty treats. I have checked in on them over the years and have found discarded turtle shells and fish bones underneath the nest.

Last spring, they had three youngsters, one more than the usual number. The youngsters normally fledge in June, but this past spring, one of the three juveniles fell out of the Wisconsin Dells nest too early. Unable to fly, it would be easy prey for a predator such as a coyote who could sniff it out.

John and Laurie Brunner, who have a home near the nest, took action to help the fledgling. They called various organizations and ended up driving it 130 miles away to the Raptor Center in Antigo. It was dehydrated, had to be fed by a tube, and had an injured wing, but it survived. It was eventually placed in a rearing pen with foster parents. 

Meanwhile, the two remaining siblings practiced flying. They fledged mid-June but were unable to hunt for themselves. Laurie and John heard a lot of loud screeching from the teenagers who wanted their parents to bring them food. But the parents refused, wanting them to learn to hunt for themselves. They also later disassembled the nest, which may have been to convince the youngsters to grow up.

As for the rehabilitated juvenile, Antigo Rehabilitation Center took good care of it and it thrived. In fact, the center is releasing it as soon as the weather cooperates. The lucky youngster might return to its natal (birth) home and check in with its parents. If it does, the pair will recognize it.

The bird I spotted earlier is coming back. The mated pair are actively building a new nest right now. It turns slightly, and the sun catches its distinctive white head.

The mystery raptor, which symbolizes strength and freedom, is the national bird of the United States of America. The bald eagle.

Thanks to the Antigo Rehabilitation Center and the Brunners for help with this column. Laurie Brunner took the photo.

4 Replies to “Can you Guess this Mystery Raptor?”

Audrey Moen

Such a great article!

Thanks so much, Audrey. I’m glad you liked it.


The Eagle in Spiritual traditions is thought to carry your prayers to heaven; some believe it can be ancestors. I was performing a wedding for a couple when two eagles came and settled on a tree branch just past the last row. It sat there as I talked and stayed until the wedding was over. I stopped and asked people to turn quietly and look as I told them the Spiritual meaning. The bride turned back with tears in her eyes and a smile. After the ceremony, she told me her granny had died recently, and she was sad she was not at the wedding. She laughed and said, “I guess she was, and brought Grandpa.”


A happy ending to a great story.

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