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Eagle-eyed observers



eagle

Eagles are making a tremendous comeback. There are more eagle nests in Florida than in any other state in the lower 48, and more than 35 in the Treasure Coast area alone. An adult eagle’s feathers are mottled, not solid dark brown as so often depicted. FWC PHOTO

National bird plentiful in Port St. Lucie

BY SUSAN BURGESS

They can be seen soaring over the plains and among the mountains, glorious, magnificent, with enormous wings outstretched, letting the air currents silently carry them high overhead.

The white head and fan-shaped tail gleaming in the sunlight make the bald eagle, the country’s national bird, one of the easiest to recognize. But what are the chances of seeing one while scanning the Florida skies?

“You can certainly see eagles flying in Port St. Lucie,” says Wren Underwood, an educator for the Savannas Preserve State Park off Walton Road. “Just keep looking up.”

There are four nests in Port St. Lucie although two of them are considered inactive.

Pat Owen of Port St. Lucie is thrilled when she spots an eagle. She is a member of the Audubon’s Eagle Watch, a group of volunteers throughout the state who monitor nests and report activity.

“I just love watching them,” she says. “They are majestic, regal, and powerful. And they are also easier to spot than smaller birds because they are so large.”

A longtime watcher, the former Martin County resident monitored a nest for three years in the Dupuis Wildlife and Environmental Area in southern Martin County. Now, she watches a nest just north of the Tesoro development in southern Port St. Lucie. It’s a peaceful place, near a lake with birds and beautiful sunsets. She likes to take her camera to capture birds in flight as they bring home food for their babies.

“You can see the nest with binoculars, but it’s far away in a pine tree,” she says.

NOVICE TRAINING
Novice eagle watchers learn that an eagle, which has a 6- to 8-foot wingspan, flies with its wings out straight from its body. A vulture, the bird most often mistaken for an eagle, displays a slight V with a dip between wings and body. Everyone who joins Audubon’s Eagle Watch gets assigned a nest to monitor and undergoes training, learning the habits of eagles and what to watch for.

Among the things Owen and other watchers record are noise levels, how active the eagles are, how many eagles they see, whether the birds seem stressed and whether there is construction nearby. Because they can’t see into the nests from the ground, they watch for small eaglet heads to pop up above the sides of the nests.

“I’ve always been fascinated by eagles,” Owen says. “They’re beautiful, powerful, fierce-looking and majestic all in one. I’m patriotic and they are a symbol of our country, so that’s mixed into my feeling about them and is the icing on the cake for me.”

TESTING THEIR WINGS
In recent years, 13 eaglets have fledged from nests in the Savannas Preserve. Fledging occurs when a young eagle flies from its nest for the first time. This year one of the nests lost its babies for some unknown reason and the parents laid eggs a second time. If the eggs hatch, the youngsters will fledge in mid-July.

But the young eagles will still return to the nest for a few weeks. Their parents, commonly referred to by watchers as mom and dad, will continue to feed them while teaching them to hunt on their own.

Juvenile eagles won’t get their white head and tail feathers until they are between 4 and 5 years old. At that point they are mature enough to breed and begin families of their own. Where they build their nests depends on the food supply and whether they can find a territory at least one mile from other eagle nests.

Florida eagles, which are smaller than northern eagles, usually lay eggs from mid-December to January and incubate them for 35 days. The eaglets fledge when they are about 10-12 weeks old. Often, in late May or June.

EAGLE PARENTING
Eagles are good parents. They take turns sitting on the eggs — though the female spends more time incubating and the male spends more time hunting and bringing food to the nest.

Both feed the babies small bits of food, usually fish, held in their beaks. When the eaglets are too large to snuggle under mom or dad, the parents usually spend the night nearby, often in the same tree, watching over them, ready to defend against predators like owls and raccoons.

There used to be an eagle cam on property owned by the developer of Tesoro at the south end of the city. But when the developer pulled out due to financial difficulties, the camera came down.

There is one in Fort Myers and a Google search will list eagle cams all over the United States for those who want to see firsthand what goes on in a nest. Some cam sites have real-time chat streams running beside the live video so people can comment and ask questions.

GROWING POPULATION
There are eagle nests at the north and south ends of the state park, but for the eagles’ safety, locations are not given. Although no longer on the national endangered species list, eagles are still making a comeback from the days when deadly DDT insecticide was routinely used, weakening egg shells and killing their main meal: fish. The number of eagles in Florida has been growing steadily since DDT was banned in 1972.

Florida has been remarkably successful in reintroducing eagles with 1,634 nests listed in 2014 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Today, the state has more eagles than any other in the lower 48 states.

There are at least 37 active and inactive eagle nests along the Treasure Coast, usually in live pine trees, according to the FWC nest count database. An inactive nest is one that has not been occupied by eagles for at least five seasons, according to FWC. There are 14 nests St. Lucie County; nine were active as of 2012, the latest year on the FWC county-specific nest list.

“If people become interested in eagles, I hope they will also develop respect for other creatures,” Owen says. “They are wonderful and intricate. Everything has its place and balance. It’s man that goes in and messes things up.”


EAGLE INFORMATION
Good information on nesting, habits and the growth of young eagles can be found at www.baldeagleinfo.com

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission offers information and a description of its eagle management plan at www.myfwc.com

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a lot of information on southeastern eagles in narrative and chart form, complete with nesting timelines at www.fws.gov

There is an excellent page on eagles at www.ccbirds.org. Although it is a Virginia organization, the facts are clear and can easily be understood by children.

Wikipedia provides a thorough article with photos of an eagle egg and chicks www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald_eagle

The National Eagle Center has a section that answers many questions about eagles at www.nationaleaglecenter.org

For those who want to see into a nest or want their children or students to watch eaglets growing up, check the eagle camera list http://eagleholic.wordpress.com and click the eagle cam list button at the top of the page.

AUDUBON EAGLE WATCH

For more information, call Audubon of Martin County 288.2637 and ask for Linda Wishney or visit www.audubonmartincounty.org

EAGLE FACTS

Nest size: An average size is about 5 or 6 feet across and 4 or more feet deep, depending on the age of the nest (eagles usually return to the same nest each year). Material is added yearly.

The nest sizes make them fairly easy to spot high in a pine tree. The eagles bring sticks, sometimes quite large, to weave into a nest. The middle is filled with grass or other soft material to form a bowl for the eggs. Frequently, nests take on a massive conical shape from top to bottom.

According to the National Eagle Center, the largest nest in the nation was recorded at St. Petersburg. It measured 9.5 feet across, 20 feet deep and weighed almost 3 tons.

Food: Fish and small mammals; fish is preferred. Eagles are opportunists and will steal food from other raptors. They sometimes scavenge at dumps or eat dead animals found on the ground. If you go eagle watching, leave your pet at home.

Where to find eagles in Port St. Lucie: There are four known nests, though two are inactive. One is near the North Fork on the west side of U.S. 1; another is near Tesoro; and two are in the Savannas Preserve State Park on the east side of U.S. 1. Since bald eagles prefer fish, you are likely to spot a nest at the top of a Florida pine tree not far from a marsh or river.

Where else to find eagles in St. Lucie County: There are several nests in the western part of the county and one on the west side of U.S. 1 in the northern savannas near Indrio Road. Visit www.myfwc.com for a nest locator.

Territories: An eagle needs at least one mile around its nest and will defend its territory fiercely. Nest predators include raccoons and the great horned owl. Sometimes squirrels will take up residence beneath the nest but within the massive structure where they are hidden from the eagle’s keen sight.

Eyesight: Eagles can focus straight ahead and to the side at the same time, according to the National Eagle Center. Eagle organizations generally agree that from 1,000 feet in the air an eagle can see a small moving object, a rabbit, for instance, within three square miles of its position. However, its night vision is said to be no better than human vision at night.

Speed: Typically an eagle flies at about 30 miles an hour, but can reach speeds of about 99 miles an hour when diving.

Male or female? The female is larger than the male - enough so that when seen together it is fairly easy to tell the gender.

Mates: Bald eagles usually mate for life.

Lifespan: About 20 years.

What to do if you see an injured eagle: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recommends calling a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. In St. Lucie County, FWC lists Creature Safe Place, Fort Pierce, at 468.6616. Eagles are powerful birds. It is best to stay some distance away. Other contacts are Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Refuge in Palm City at 221.1231 and Treasure Coast Wildlife Hospital in Palm City at 286.6200.

Protection of eagles: Although the bald eagle has been removed from the federal endangered or threatened species lists, it continues to be protected by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the state bald eagle rule. The FWC eagle management program sets a 660-foot buffer zone around eagle nests. If you spot a nest, be sure to stay outside the buffer zone.

Sources: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; American Bald Eagle Information;National Eagle Center; WildFlorida; Audubon; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service