Eagles Soar At Aberdeen

April 02, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The bald eagle hunkered in its tree-top nest, not pleased at the sight and sound of an Army helicopter slapping the air nearby.

But the mechanical bird was friendly. Its mission was to help get an accurate tally of nesting pairs of bald eagles at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the woodsy, 72,000-acre reservation northeast of Baltimore.

Since World War II, the national symbol has needed any institutional friend it could find, as the pesticide DDT and loss of habitat pushed the species to the edge of extinction in the continental United States.

Rachel Carson proved to be a friend, by sounding the alarm about chemical pollution. Congress did a lot by passing the Endangered Species Act. And the Army also has befriended the bald eagle, by protecting and counting them at Aberdeen.

To be sure, the shy birds must cope with the explosions, deafening noise and brush fires caused by weapons testing. But this hot corner of the Chesapeake Bay remains a haven, because there's little competition with humans for the forested shoreline that bald eagles crave.

In the recent survey, with the helicopter hovering near nests perched 50 to 60 feet in the air, 15 nesting pairs were counted for the second straight year, compared with seven in 1988.

Aberdeen has more nesting bald eagles than any other single slice of the multi-state Chesapeake Bay region. "We've tried to do the right thing by the birds," says James Pottie, a civilian Army biologist.

Overall, the bay region, with its thousands of miles of shoreline, has the second largest population of bald eagles on the East Coast, behind Florida. The species has rebounded elsewhere in the lower 48 states too. This summer, the federal government plans to upgrade the bald eagle's status from "endangered" to "threatened," completing a listing change announced with great fanfare last summer.

In 1970, only 55 nesting pairs were counted in Chesapeake Bay-area states -- Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Today, there are about 330 pairs.

The bald eagle, poster child of government efforts to protect wildlife, has overcome the ravages of the now-banned DDT, which nearly wiped out the bird on the East Coast by affecting reproduction.

It wasn't until the 1962 book "Silent Spring," by the late Rachel Carson, a government biologist who lived in Silver Spring, that the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use were highlighted. Now the very laws the book helped to promote are being closely examined by the new Republican Congress. The 1973 Endangered Species Act set up procedures to identify species in need of help and to protect their habitats. Critics see the law as overly sympathetic to wildlife, at the expense of economic growth and the rights of property owners.

The House of Representatives has voted to temporarily suspend all new listings of endangered species and to require payment to landowners for any decline in property values stemming from the act's restrictions. Moreover, agencies that enforce the act face budget cuts.

Birds preceded Army

America's man-wildlife clashes in recent years include the northern spotted owl vs. the logging industry in the Northwest, and the red-cockaded woodpecker vs. timberland owners in the Southeast. As politicians try to balance the interests of people and wildlife, Aberdeen's eagles provide a glimpse of how the issue is anything but simple.

The existence of the colony isn't surprising, environmentalists say. Large public lands such as military bases, where it can be easier to enforce federal environmental laws, are magnets for wildlife.

Aberdeen provides some of the last forested shoreline and expansive marshlands in the upper bay. The birds, which were there long before the Army came in 1917, need such habitat for hunting, shelter and raising young.

"So many other places have been trashed," says James Fraser, a professor at Virginia Tech, who has studied the bay's eagles and is trying to gauge how shoreline changes will affect their future.

Not only do eagles raise their young at Aberdeen, but the base

harbors more of the birds in winter -- up to 120 or so -- than any site in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Source of pride

The eagles are a source of pride for Army brass at Aberdeen, which is wrestling with a multimillion-dollar cleanup of toxic waste sites and old caches of unexploded chemical weapons.

Efforts to protect the eagles have a price. Some tests must be curtailed during the nesting season or around places where the birds roost in the winter.

The Army is paying for a three-year, $400,000 study of whether the thunderous racket from artillery tests is disturbing the birds. Army biologists say the results so far show that the eagles can tolerate it.

After several eagles were electrocuted while trying to sit on the base's many electric power poles, the Army agreed to erect 500 wooden perches above the power lines, at a cost of about $30,000.

During the recent helicopter survey of eagle nests, one bird was seen trying to incubate its eggs while shrouded in thick smoke from a nearby brush fire. Such blazes usually are touched off by weapons tests.

Many of the fires must be doused by large "buckets" of water carried by helicopters, because trucks cannot traverse firing ranges littered with unexploded shells.

Despite the odds, the Army and the eagles have managed to co-exist.

This indicates that the national bird is more adaptable than many people realize, says Paul Nickerson, an endangered species expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Sometimes we don't give wildlife enough credit for being tolerant of our activities," he says.

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