Bald eagles thrive at APG despite noisy neighbors

Rebound: The military testing site is home to one of the highest concentrations of the national bird in the Chesapeake region.

April 19, 2005|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

From a distance, it looks as though the three eagles above Woodrest Creek couldn't have found a more peaceful perch.

Motorboats and curious hikers can't get close. The nearest road is about 450 yards away. The only sounds come from a chirping osprey nesting across the street.

And then - boom! - a tank gun fires. A few minutes later - boom! - it fires again.

It's enough to make a human heart stop. But the eagles don't even flinch. To the winged longtime residents of Aberdeen Proving Ground, such intermittent explosions are as much a part of their habitat as the water and the air.

Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the bald eagle on the endangered species list 30 years ago, America's symbol of freedom has made quite a comeback: the agency is considering removing the bird from the list. And perhaps nowhere in the region is the resurgence as clear as at one of the U.S. Army's premier weapons testing sites - home to one of the largest eagle concentrations in the Chesapeake Bay.

"The reason they're here is that we have so much relatively undeveloped land, and we have an awful lot of shoreline," said John Paul, an endangered-species biologist who monitors eagles at the base. "The occasional cannon going off doesn't really seem to bother them."

When the eagle edged out the wild turkey as the national symbol in America's nascent days, its population was more than 25,000. But its numbers declined as hunting intensified and waterfront habitat was lost to development. The final straw was the pesticide DDT, which contaminated food and caused eggshells to thin and crack. By the 1960s, the eagles in the lower 48 states dropped to fewer than 450 nesting pairs.

With the ban on DDT in 1972, eagles began to bounce back. To counter the pesticide's damage, biologists climbed into eagles' nests, replaced fragile eggs with fake eggs, incubated the baby eagles in a protected hatchery and returned the chicks after they hatched. Volunteers watched the raptors' nests, which can span 20 feet and weigh up to 4,000 pounds.

Today there are more than 7,000 eagles in the lower 48 states. About 8 percent of them are in the Chesapeake Bay region, according to Bryan D. Watts, who directs the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary.

Maryland has so many nesting pairs - 383 at last count - that it gave a few eaglets to Vermont last year so the Green Mountain State could try to establish a population there.

For the bald eagle, the "endangered" listing has accomplished its goals, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Cindy Hoffman.

"The Endangered Species Act kind of creates an emergency room for species. And once we achieve recovery plans, it's time to move on and provide those resources to species that are more in need," she said.

A timetable for the de-listing is pending, Hoffman said. If the government de-lists the eagle, it will still be protected under the 65-year-old Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which forbids killing or selling eagles and also protects their nests.

Despite the protections, eagles seem to be losing out in a competition for waterfront habitat with a rapidly expanding population of commuters. The raptors, which can weigh up to 14 pounds and have a wingspan of more than eight feet, need to live near water.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, with its 104 miles of shoreline and half of its 72,000 acres under water or in wetland protection, has proved hospitable. Armed guards secure the habitat - a visitor needs two security clearances to reach the most accessible of the nests. Those who do enter aren't likely to tromp around off-road on a base littered with unexploded ordnance.

The Army testing site has became a haven for other wildlife: deer, coyotes, fox, muskrat, beaver, osprey and the prehistoric-looking great blue herons.

But it was the eagles that the military began noticing in droves. In 1978, the base was home to six eagles and one nest. By 2003, a count revealed 250 eagles and 24 nests. Now there are 34 nests. No other place in the region except Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge comes close to matching that density.

As their numbers have increased, so have the challenges of managing an endangered resource on a base full of high-caliber weapons. Since 2002, eagles have been dying at a rate of about 15 a year - a major increase over the 1990s, when the rate was about one a year.

The birds are running into power lines and being electrocuted. But biologists are not certain why.

Paul, the base's ecologist, said the problem could be an increased number of eagles crowding each other into the base's 70 miles of power lines. Glenn Therres, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who studies bald eagles, said the problem could also stem from changing activities at the proving ground.

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