The eagles haven't landed, but already the noble flyers have accomplished what a flock of protesters hasn't been able to do: block a Safeway supermarket and strip mall planned for Deale in southern Anne Arundel County.
For now, anyway.
Because a pine tree near the plaza site has a bald eagle's nest - one of seven in the county - state Department of Natural Resources guidelines say no construction can begin after Dec. 15 to avoid disturbing the threatened birds' mating habits.
Safeway cannot meet that deadline, meaning its bulldozers won't be able to fire up until after June 15, by which time any hatchlings should have taken flight, state officials say.
That is, if the birds show up as expected and hatch little eaglets into the world.
For the beleaguered grocery chain, it's the latest twist in a dispute that, at its most bizarre, saw foes unfurl a 12-foot papier-mache puppet of County Executive Janet S. Owens that was made to shimmy to a tune about sprawl. The Owens administration approved the Safeway project this month, after two self-imposed delays meant to ease opposition, but critics filed an appeal.
Now, even a revered national symbol - one with far more symbolic potency than a forest full of spotted owls - seems to be conspiring against the Deale Safeway. It is the kind of clash that may become increasingly common as the state's seasonal eagle population continues rising; 270 nests were counted last year compared with 41 in 1977.
"No one can argue with the American bald eagle - that's for sure," said Betty Dixon, the county's land-use and environmental program manager.
The 2-year-old Safeway dispute has stirred such deep distrust that project opponent Amanda Spake wondered aloud if the county would ignore the eagles' need for peace and quiet. (No way, said Dixon; county law requires state guidelines be followed.)
And the head of the development company working for Safeway confided that some in Deale have suggested the nest might be a fake planted by foes to stop development. (No way, said Spake, president of South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development; her forces learned of the eagles' presence from others.)
"You name it, those guys [at SACReD] have come after us with it," said Chris Bell of Greencastle Development of Annapolis. "There is almost no piece of land you can't find something on if you really dig hard enough."
To buttress his point, he mentioned "those little frogs" - eastern narrow-mouthed toads - that stymied a planned road project in St. Mary's County a few years ago. He also noted that a sprawling boatyard and busy Route 256 lie between the eagle's nest and the 16-acre wooded Safeway site.
Still, Bell said he has spoken to Glenn Therres, the state's bald eagle biologist, and is satisfied that the nest is real. He said he will not contest the delay.
"We're not trying to bulldoze the environment," Bell added.
The nest in question was used the last two winters and remains intact, said Therres. It is within one-quarter of a mile of the Safeway site, triggering the restriction on construction.
Ordinarily, the guidelines say no construction at all can occur between Dec. 15 and June 15 if a nest is less than a quarter-mile away. But the abundance of nearby stores, including a 7-Eleven, prompted state officials to modify the guidelines, Therres said.
"They're used to routine activity human-wise - cars, pedestrians, whatnot," he said of the Deale eagles. State officials will check the nest around March to see if the eagles are "on egg." If not, Bell could ask for a waiver to start clearing the site.
The number of eagles in Maryland and across the country has steadily climbed in recent decades. Three years ago, the bald eagle was "downlisted" from endangered species to threatened, a change the state of Maryland adopted in September, according to Therres.
The moratorium in Deale delighted Spake, whose group has challenged the county's decision this month to issue a grading permit. The appeal is before the county Board of Appeals, which has set a hearing for Dec. 20 - five days after the Department of Natural Resources deadline to begin work. Spake hopes to use the six months to persuade Safeway to build on another site, though the parcel at Routes 256 and 258 was rezoned commercial a decade ago.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said a permit to fill nine-tenths of an acre of wetlands should be suspended because of potentially "dangerous" environmental effects. But the county approved the Safeway because the project has a valid Army Corps of Engineers permit.
Owens has supported Safeway, even as she wrested an agreement to reduce the mall's size by 10 percent, to 77,000 square feet. But she said the eagles are more important than a timely start to construction.
"We know the eagles come and [contractors] can't build," she said. "That's good."