A circling bald eagle overhead is the only sign there are babies in the nest 65 feet up a loblolly pine tree. Biologist Craig Koppie isn't sure what he'll find in the nest until he climbs, peers inside and shouts down the good news -- "Triplets!"
BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Md. A circling bald eagle overhead is the only sign there are babies in the nest 65 feet up a loblolly pine tree. Biologist Craig Koppie isn't sure what he'll find in the nest until he climbs, peers inside and shouts down the good news -- "Triplets!"
Koppie, an endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, now has a job even trickier than climbing a tall pine in search of bald eaglets.
His mission is to get the eaglets out of the nest without damage, into a dog crate, then to Vermont, where federal wildlife officials started a project three years ago to reintroduce bald eagles in the only state in the contiguous United States without a nesting pair of the national symbol.
Koppie's job starts with a little small talk. He chatters to himself as he climbs around to the 5-foot-wide nest, blabbering so that the eaglets know something is approaching. If Koppie were to sneak up quietly, the eaglets might get spooked and fall out of the nest, and they're a few weeks from learning how to fly.
Not that the baby eagles are small. Though nearly defenseless, without being able to fly or effectively use their sharp, black talons, the eaglets weigh about 8 pounds and spread their wings in alarm when Koppie climbs into their nest. Even from dozens of feet below, the size of the eaglets is imposing.
But Koppie has done this plenty of times before, so he knows the eaglets aren't in much danger at less than nine weeks old. He calmly picks one up, wraps it in a towel, then puts cloth straps around the towel to make what he calls "a little straitjacket" for the bird. The eaglet, which is years away from having the bald eagles' white head, is then placed in a black duffel bag and lowered by rope to another biologist waiting on the ground.
Biologists have a small window in the spring baby season to collect the eaglets. They have to be old enough to tear their food but too young to jump out of a nest, meaning the eaglets have to be collected in their seventh or eighth weeks from nests -- which are spotted by overhead airplane surveillance. At this stage of development, biologists can't differentiate the birds by gender because males and females have identical plumage.
The mother eagle never approaches the nest even as her young are taken away, though she circles in the sky making a squeaky chirping sound.
"Compared to other birds of prey, eagles are pretty docile," explained Michael Amaral, a senior endangered species biologist. Despite their fearsome image, bald eagles are relatively easy to work with and won't attack humans climbing into one of their nests.
Amaral waits on the ground for the eaglet to be lowered, then carefully removes the towel. It's apparent the baby eagle doesn't like being moved, but it doesn't try to fly or run away. It opens its beak in a little pant but doesn't snap as Amaral and an assistant clamp metal tracking devices to its legs.
"There we go," Amaral says to the eaglet, then, metal anklets in place, he lets the eaglet sit to the side while its sibling is lowered and tagged. The third baby is left for the mother.
"We never leave a pair with an empty nest. That wouldn't be right," Koppie said. But before leaving the tree, Koppie looks up to the eagle still swooping in arcs around the nest and joked, "I just saved her a lot of headache."
Once tagged, Amaral and Koppie wrap the birds again and head to a truck with dog crates in the back. The eaglets are unwrapped into separate crates and the biologists head for the second stop of the day, an even higher nest on private property nearby. By the time the collection is done, Amaral and Koppie will take six birds to Addison, Vt.
The eagle project started at the request of retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, who asked U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials what project they'd like to see funded. Biologists came up with the $250,000, three-year plan to reintroduce bald eagles in Vermont.
Maryland was chosen as a likely place to collect eaglets because of its ample population. From an estimated 75 nesting pairs in 1977, the Chesapeake Bay region, including parts of Virginia and Delaware, now has at least 1,000 nesting pairs. That's thanks mostly to abundant waterfront habitat, Koppie said.
Within two days of collection, at the edge of a small stand of Vermont woods, the six young eaglets are settling into their home in Addison, atop a penthouse of sorts -- a "hack box" mounted 25 feet in the air on utility poles. The boxes include drawers in which volunteers push dead fish or birds, and one-way glass so handlers can monitor the eaglets without being seen.
The young eagles have an impressive view overlooking the Dead Creek as it flows through the rolling farm fields of the Lake Champlain Valley.
The volunteers watch the hack boxes 24 hours a day to prevent raccoons or human vandals from getting to the birds. Bars on the front of the boxes prevent them from falling off the platform.
Separate from the program in Addison, a pair of bald eagles hatched at least one eaglet in a nest on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River earlier this spring, but wildlife officials recently found a carcass indicating the young did not survive. The adult pair was the first known to have reproduced in Vermont since the 1940s.
Amaral said it wasn't clear why Vermont had no bald eagles for so long. He said the state's geography probably means bald eagles, which take more than three years to reach sexual maturity, were never abundant there.
"Vermont's not exactly a water-rich state. It probably never supported a robust bald eagle population," Amaral said, pointing out that eagles seek open water, not frozen water.
The chemical DDT also is to blame for decimating the populations of eagles and other birds several decades ago. In 1967, bald eagles were declared endangered and in 1972 DDT was banned.
As the Maryland transplants mature, they will start to flap their wings in the restricted space of the box. When the biologists deem them ready for flight, usually at about 12 weeks, the bars will be raised.
"We open the box in the middle of the night so we don't spook them out," said Eveleen Cecchini, the director of Outreach for Earth Stewardship, another group working on the restoration program. "And at first light some of them will take off as though they've flown their whole lives. They know exactly what they're doing."
Since 2003, Maryland has sent 19 bald eaglets to Vermont, though not all have survived. At least one met its end from a high-speed commuter train. Others ended up settling in New York, which already had a bald eagle population.
The slow-moving Dead Creek, and the surrounding wildlife management area in the broad plain east of Lake Champlain, is a good place for the young eagles to learn to fend for themselves while being protected.
The birds will continue to be fed at the Dead Creek site through the end of the summer, until they no longer return looking for food. Then they're on their own.
Associated Press Writer Wilson Ring in Vermont contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press