Maryland eaglets off to New England

Swap: Three birds from the Eastern Shore are sent to Vermont to help re-establish a bald eagle population there.

May 12, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

RAGGED POINT - The mother eagle was hissing, brandishing her talons and otherwise causing a ruckus - her way of letting Craig Koppie know she would have none of his plan to spirit one of her eaglets off to Vermont.

But Koppie, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, would not be deterred. With help from his New England colleague, Michael Amaral, he would get the bird and two others to Vermont, the only state in the lower 48 without a breeding bald eagle population.

He strapped on his spikes, harnessed himself in a nylon rope contraption and inched up the 80-foot tree. About an hour later, he sent down the feisty bird in a mesh bag, taped into a pink towel like a patient in a straitjacket.

"It's even harder than it looks," said an admiring Amaral. "But for the privilege of climbing into an eagle's nest, it's worth it."

Amaral, who works for the fish and wildlife service's New England field office, had the privilege of witnessing that yesterday because of a state-federal partnership determined to restore the national bird to the eagle-bereft Green Mountain State.

The eaglets collected yesterday here and at another spot just outside Cambridge joined a third chick caught Monday at the Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge near Rock Hall. Last night, Amaral began the 10-hour drive to Vermont with the eagles, who seemed content - if a bit confused - in their dog carriers. After spending the night in the rented van, the birds will disembark at the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, about 30 minutes south of Burlington.

Then, Vermont birding experts will deposit the state's first eaglets in decades into man-made nests, where workers will nurture the birds until they're strong enough to fly on their own.

The three Chesapeake Bay eaglets follow a successful tradition of state wildlife swapping in hopes of boosting flagging populations. In the 1980s, Massachusetts brought back the eagle using pairs imported from Canada. State swaps have also buttressed populations of river otters and wild turkeys.

Since 1978, when the bird symbolizing American freedom and self-reliance was placed on the endangered species list in 43 of the lower 48 states and on the threatened list in the remaining five, state and federal agencies have been working on restoration.

Thanks to such efforts as the banning of DDT, restoration efforts in most states have been so effective that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to remove the eagles from the threatened list. Now, Maryland and Virginia have more than 600 pairs of bald eagles between them, while Maine has close to 300 pairs.

Only Rhode Island and Vermont were without the nation's winged symbol-until last year, when a pair of breeding eagles landed in the nation's smallest state. It was then that Vermont decided to import some eaglets, a move state officials hope will enrich the ecosystem around Lake Champlain.

Under the project, which will cost about $100,000 a year for three years, Vermont will import eaglets from Maine in late June and will be back to collect in Maryland and Maine for the next two years. Private breeders will send eaglets along, too. And Virginia officials, who also answered Vermont's call for eagle assistance, remain on standby.

But despite Maryland's eagle abundance, finding - and catching - three eaglets was no easy task.

First, Koppie undertook a surveillance mission to find nests with twins between six and eight weeks old - too young to fly, but old enough that relocation wouldn't be traumatic. The idea was to leave one twin in a nest so the parents would remain there. Then, Koppie had to climb the tree, lower himself into the nest and remove the bird.

None of the eaglets appeared eager to leave. But the third one, caught just off Route 343 about 1 p.m. yesterday, raised the biggest fuss.

The bird squirmed, then raised a giant wing to defend itself. Koppie tried talking to the bird, then used a stick with a hook to grab part of the eaglet's leg.

"This isn't going to be very easy, getting this bird down," Koppie called from 90 feet up.

Bark, branches and a few stray terrapin shells from the nest came tumbling down from the loblolly tree as Koppie placed the squirming eaglet in the mesh bag and lowered it down with his rope. He left behind the remains of a mallard, which Koppie said looked "just like a pillow that had been broken open."

On the ground, the bird was no less frisky. Its black talons batted at the pink towel, like goth press-on nails being shaken to dry. Again, it held out its wing as Amaral tried to band it with its identification "bracelets."

Finally, a sweaty Koppie emerged from the tree and the two biologists carried the eaglet and their gear into the van. There, with the air conditioner blazing, the young bird cooled down. After a pit stop at Koppie's home in Severn to pick up the third bird - along with some venison and duck, the eaglets' answer to trail mix - the caged birds took to the road.

Wresting the birds from their nests wasn't easy, Koppie said, but it was the right thing to do.

"I'm all for total dispersal," he said. "If any state that had them could get them back, that is what it's all about."

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