For once, timing of wildlife monitor was pretty perfect

Bald eagle seen in Howard County

Md. sightings rising

July 16, 1999|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SUN STAFF

The first two hours on Triadelphia Reservoir were deja vu for Raymond Hohl, trolling the banks of the reservoir for bald eagles and issuing his stock warning, "We probably won't see them."

Hohl, a law enforcement officer who monitors wildlife around the reservoir, had been charged more than once with leading visitors on ill-timed quests to find Howard County's only nesting pair of eagles. On this 92-degree day in July, both logic and the patrol boat, which had to have a leaky replacement fuel tank repaired, pointed to another futile search.

For one thing, in a survey reported last month, the state Department of Natural Resources found only one nesting pair of eagles in Howard County -- presumably the same pair seen since 1992. The eagle population in 18 other Maryland counties has grown sixfold since tracking began in 1977.

Also, bald eagles become unpredictable after their eaglets mature and leave the nest in the spring. The Triadelphia eagles' 5-foot-wide nest is visible on the bare branches of an oak tree in a cove on the Howard County shore of the reservoir, which borders Montgomery County, but the birds could roam anywhere within five miles of it and almost disappear.

"When I see them," Hohl said, "it is a special thing. I can't tell you exactly how I feel, but it's cool."

With suckers, eels and crappie, Triadelphia is a stable enough environment for eagles, said Glenn Therres, DNR eagle biologist. However, the Triadelphia eagles, he said, are the odd couple among Maryland's eagles, which usually are found near tidal waters.

"Triadelphia is the exception," Therres said. "The Patuxent and Patapsco rivers are too much of a trickle to sustain many more eagles."

Drought and heat had sapped about 20 feet of depth from the reservoir's normal level near Brighton Dam. Much of the wildlife that had remained in the area took cover under thick summer foliage. Hohl was sure the eagles would be no exception.

Hohl's anticipation grew as the buzz of the boat's engine did; as he mashed the throttle, a large, dark wingspan came into view. He idled the boat when he discovered that the bird was one of a half-dozen vultures overhead.

"It's easy to see vultures," Hohl said in disappointment. "That may be all we see today, that and some osprey, some geese and some great blue heron."

260 nesting pairs

Hohl's disappointment aside, bald eagle sightings in Maryland have become more common with the population burgeoning under federal protection. The 260 nesting eagle pairs counted by DNR this year grew from a population of 41 pairs in 1977, five years after the national bird was placed on the endangered species list. DNR estimates another 368 young eagles are flying the Maryland skies without permanent nests.

President Clinton said July 2 that the eagles had made a strong comeback and they should be off the endangered species list by July next year.

Hohl believes the Howard County eagles migrated from Montgomery County, from private land about to be developed.

"Somebody forced them over here, and they just haven't left yet," Hohl said.

Hohl and his colleagues at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which manages the reservoir, keep vigil over the only body of water large enough to support an eagle pair in Howard County. The lifelong couple are estimated to be 10 years old; eagles live on average to 12.

After about two hours of futility, the officer lowered his skyward gaze to water level and removed his plastic sunglasses. A day's worth of sunshine had deepened the contrast between ruddy and pale flesh along the tan line where his glasses had been.

He conceded the day to the elusive eagles.

"It's OK to me," Hohl said. "I like the outdoors, so coming out here was good for me."

Hohl turned his attention to beavers he stirred from their den and steered the boat to watch a gaggle of Canada geese waddle up a muddy bank.

The boat's engine raced again when Hohl spotted an osprey with a fish in its talons swing up from the water's surface and glide toward a treetop.

As the boat neared, the osprey flapped its wings and followed the shoreline, distancing itself from Hohl and dipping out of view into the contour of the last cove before the expedition would be over.

Eagle sighting

In pursuit, Hohl rounded the cove.

"There it is. How about that?" Hohl shouted. The boat reeled with his startled jump.

There was the day's reward -- a bald eagle at eye level less than 30 yards away. Talons jutted out from golden outstretched legs and wings flexed as in pose for a U.S. seal.

The eagle had swooped upon the osprey to try to steal its catch. It briefly turned its stern white face to the officer before soaring upward, away from the interlopers.

"That's why Ben Franklin wanted to make the turkey the national bird," Hohl said. "Eagles will hunt for food if they have to. If they have the chance, though, they're scavengers, thieves.

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