A veritable feathered soap opera is playing out high in the trees of York County, and it may involve a homewrecker, abandoned offspring, and even a murder.
First, the background.
A pair of nesting bald eagles – Liberty and Freedom – have become social media darlings since their debut on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Eagle Cam in Hanover four years ago. Liberty, the female, had been using the nest for 12 years, Lancaster Online reported.
For its part, the Game Commission does not name the elegant birds, which are not banded, said Lori Neely Mitchell, the media services division chief for the Game Commission. Those monikers are chosen by a "very passionate" group of bird-cam watchers, she said.
In both 2015 and 2017, the couple were proud parents of two eaglets. In 2016, one of their eaglets died and the other egg did not hatch.
This year the Eagle Cam went live on Jan. 3, allowing viewers to follow the couple as they worked to rebuild the nest, which had broken and fallen farther down the tree. They brought sticks, corn stalks, grasses, and other materials to the nest, the Pennsylvania Game Commission reported.
On Feb. 20, the first egg appeared, followed by another three days later. The eggs were expected to hatch in late March.
But then, the situation took the first of several turns.
Since March 10, Freedom, who had been taking his turn keeping the eggs warm in the nest, was attacked twice by a female intruder, dubbed Lucy by the social media followers.
The two can be seen in a violent struggle above the fragile eggs in a video posted online. Flapping their enormous wings and screeching, they used their sharp talons and hooked beaks in the battle.
The Game Commission reported that an extra bald eagle like Lucy may be an adult that has not yet paired up and claimed a territory. The eagle may attempt to interfere with a nesting pair to claim a mate. There are now 300 active nests in the state and the Hanover nest site is located near Lake Marburg, which offers the birds good fishing.
"They are beginning to compete for territory," said Neely Mitchell. "It is a new thing for us to watch."
"With the population filling the available habitat in many parts of Pennsylvania, it would not be surprising to see some increase in nest failure as a result of these interferences and competition disrupting the care of nest and young," the agency reported on its Eagle Cam page.
Then on Saturday, Liberty went missing.
An injured eagle was seen near the nest the same day, but was gone by the time the Game Commission arrived, Lancaster Online reported.
If an eagle is found injured, the agency could bring it to a licensed rehabilitation facility for care, Neely Mitchell said. So far, there have been no reports of an eagle in distress, she said.
Are we looking at an unfortunate accident — or foul play?
"Some think Lucy wants to take over for the missing Liberty and maternally assume incubation duties. But others aren't buying it and think she may even be responsible for Liberty's disappearance," Lancaster Online reported.
Freedom valiantly stuck it out on the nest through most of this week's nor'easter that hammered the area. He was seen on videos covered in snow and crying out — perhaps for his missing mate, social media speculated.
When breeding, eagles develop a brood patch, an area without feathers that contains numerous blood vessels that allow the adults to easily transfer heat to the eggs. Females typically have a larger brood patch.
While snow is not necessarily a concern for the eggs, a hungry parent without easy access to food is.
Freedom had no chance to eat since Liberty disappeared. Most likely, the hungry father flew off in search of food.
On Thursday morning, the nest appeared to be abandoned.
"It certainly seems as if one of the pair disappeared," said Neely Mitchell. "It also appears there is a different adult being seen at the nest."
Shortly after 9 a.m., a curious squirrel was seen checking out the empty nest.
"They named him, too. Rocky." said Neely Mitchell. All squirrels are named Rocky by viewers, she added.
By Thursday afternoon, one of the eagles had returned to the nest with extra sticks. Later, both Freedom and Lucy were seen at the nest and getting along before they both flew off, according to the cam watch chat group.
The eggs remained buried under the snow.
"I would consider them not viable at this point," said Neely Mitchell. It is unfortunate this nest failed, she added.
"We have never in modern history been witness to such conflict events, and we will all learn as we go," the Game Commission stated on its website. "In most conceivable circumstances, nature will be allowed to take its course without intervention."