You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

These bald eagle nestwatchers help an imperiled species soar again over Arizona

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 2/27/2020 Debra Utacia Krol, The Republic | azcentral.com

RIO VERDE — Just two miles north of an upscale golf community along the lower Verde River, Eduardo Martinez-Leyva carefully adjusts a spotting scope. He sights the lens on a seemingly disordered clump of branches and sticks, about 6 feet in diameter, that cling to a branch high up in a cottonwood tree about 300 feet from where he stands.

a bird flying in a clear blue sky: A female eagle flies off to hunt, February 25, 2020, at the Box Bar Recreation Area near Rio Verde. The pair take turns sitting on the eggs and never leave the nest unattended. © Mark Henle/The Republic A female eagle flies off to hunt, February 25, 2020, at the Box Bar Recreation Area near Rio Verde. The pair take turns sitting on the eggs and never leave the nest unattended.

Martinez-Leyva and his wife, Leticia Cruz-Paredes, are wildlife biologists based in Veracruz, Mexico, and members of the Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program. The nestwatchers are an essential component in the comeback of the desert nesting bald eagle from fewer than a half-dozen nests in 1970, to 89 nests in 2019.

Working with state wildlife managers, the nestwatchers camp out in nesting areas for 10 days at a time with four days off. Many of them are biologists like Martinez-Layva and Cruz-Paredes. They record nesting behavior, how long each partner departs the nest, favorite perching sites and interactions with other birds.

Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.

"Eagles have a key role as top predators," says Martinez-Layva, who has worked with raptors and migratory birds his entire professional life, almost 20 years.

"When their numbers go down, when something is affecting them, it's an indication there's something wrong with the environment," he said. "I'm happy to be out here knowing I'm doing my part for the conservation of all these beautiful animals." The couple even goes birding during their time off from nestwatching, he said. 

The nestwatchers never know when they might see the eagles fly. In the middle of an interview, Martinez-Leyva points skyward. “The eagle is flying overhead!” he said.

The male eagle soars about 30 feet off the ground, and everything stops for a moment except the soft whir of camera lenses as the raptor passes overhead on his way to the river to fish.

For more stories that matter: Click here to subscribe to azcentral.com

A symbol, but one at risk

The bald eagle has long been an important symbol on the American landscape. Indigenous peoples hold the raptor in high cultural regard and it is the U.S. national emblem.

But it has struggled in the wild, falling victim to illegal shooting, habitat destruction and the use of the pesticide DDT. The chemical accumulates in eagles after they eat contaminated fish, resulting in eggs with shells too weak to withstand brooding. The eagle was listed as an endangered species in 1973.

In the early 1970s, at least two of the remaining bald eagle nests along the lower Verde River played an important role in a 10-year fight on the Fort McDowell Yavapai reservation. The 340-member Yavapai tribe and environmentalists successfully blocked the construction of a dam at the confluence of the Verde and Salt rivers that would have drowned at least half the tribe’s 24,000-acre land base and doomed the nests.

Fort McDowell commemorates the defeat of the dam during an annual celebration, and the eagle is the center of their tribal seal and flag. The tribe also participates in the nestwatch program. 

After the eagle was listed as endangered, a consortium of tribal, state and federal agencies and private groups came together to conserve the desert nesting population. Five years later, the nestwatch program was established by the U.S. Forest Service and the Audubon Society.

Arizona eagles slower to recover

Although bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback, eagle recovery has been slower in Arizona than in other states, said Tice Supplee, director of bird conservation at Audubon Arizona. Among other differences, they breed earlier in the year than other eagle populations because they’ve adapted to Arizona’s hot, dry climate. That means other eagle populations can’t take up the slack if Arizona’s numbers fall too far.

Eagle nestlings can’t regulate their body temperature, so raising young in the cooler winter months gives them the best possible chance to grow to flight age, when they’re known as fledglings, and soar to more temperate areas before summer sets in.

Because they’re a smaller population, the desert eagles are more vulnerable to habitat loss like damming up once free-flowing rivers as well as a reduction in the wetlands they need for a steady food supply.

“When I moved to Arizona in 1970, there may have been five pairs of eagles,” said Supplee. By 2011, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had removed bald eagles, including the desert bald eagle population, from the endangered species list, there were 48 occupied nests that produced more than 74 eggs.

Supplee also noted that “floaters,” bald eagles that survive their first critical four to five years and who have yet to establish a nest territory, were observed returning to find mates and build nests of their own. The nestwatcher program played a central role in that increase.

Protecting the nests from visitors

Currently managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the nestwatcher program employs about two dozen people who camp out in strategic nest locations to watch over the nests.

The program is also part of the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee, a consortium of 26 tribal, state and federal agencies along with private and nonprofit organizations that formed in 1984 to continue conservation efforts.

Kenneth “Tuk” Jacobson, a wildlife biologist, has managed the program for nearly 20 years and has also been present for the return of the majestic avians from virtual extinction.

These nests are located in areas with heavy recreational use, said Martinez-Leyva, who’s been with the nestwatcher program for five years.

“When the eagles come and nest in this area, there’s a high possibility of encounters between people and eagles,” he said. 

Many people don’t know where eagles are or why it’s important to stay away from them, said Martinez-Leyva. But he said, "we are here to tell people to keep their distance from the eagles, to educate them and let them enjoy the eagles.”

He and his wife give visitors an up-close view from their scopes and hand out materials about the raptors and the conservation program.

a close up of a person holding a camera: Tuk Jacobson, the Arizona Game and Fish Raptor Management Coordinator, observes activity in a nest, February 25, 2020, at the Box Bar Recreation Area near Rio Verde. © Mark Henle/The Republic Tuk Jacobson, the Arizona Game and Fish Raptor Management Coordinator, observes activity in a nest, February 25, 2020, at the Box Bar Recreation Area near Rio Verde.

Risks remain for the eagles

The eagles still face significant challenges to their continued existence even with the presence of the nestwatcher program or the larger bald eagle management program. As riverine areas recede, so do the cottonwood trees in which the raptors feel comfortable and safe to build nests, said Jacobson. Shriveling waterways also contribute to decreases in fish, one of the eagle’s staple foods.

Human interactions around breeding areas also can pose a challenge, said Jacobson.

“Photographers that want to get a good picture and spend hours and hours under the nest keep the birds from doing what they need to do, like find food to feed their nestlings,” he said. “They’re too worried about you being there to go and do those nesting activities.”

Startling the roosting parent can cause it to flush, or flee the nest, as it feels threatened. Depending on the time of year or how close the egg is to hatching, leaving the egg uncovered for more than a few minutes can kill them, said Jacobson.

Electrocution takes eagles’ lives as they move closer to urban areas, said Jacobson. Ingesting rodents killed with rat poisons can poison and kill eagles and other birds. And sometimes, vehicles hit eagles noshing on road kill.

Lead ammunition also takes a deadly toll on eagles and other raptors when they eat the innards of field-dressed game. That’s why Arizona Game and Fish asks hunters to voluntarily move to lead-free ammunition or to transport the entrails to where they can be safely disposed of. The agency even holds an annual contest where hunters who truck out the viscera of game shot with lead ammunition can win prizes.

Nestwatchers also identified two new threats: motorized parachutes and drones. When the small motorized flyers approach nests too closely, they too can flush a nest.

“They were flying by and buzzing the eagles, disturbing the nest sites,” said Jacobson. “We were able to reach out to the parachute community and really reduce that activity,” he said.

“Now, we’re having more and more issues with drones flying into nest sites and getting video of bald eagle nests up close,” said Jacobson.

If the drones scare the eagles off the nest, the nestlings are exposed to temperatures and ravens waiting to whisk the eggs or eaglets away for a quick snack.

Drone pilots, Jacobson said, should “give the nests space and don’t try to get photos on them. Let them do their thing.”

Watching over a recovering species

Jacobson said one way he counts his progress over the past 18 breeding seasons is observing how many birds he’s been able to help with.

“I’ve been here long enough to see that there’s a lot of birds that I’ve been able to respond to calls from the nestwatchers — grab those birds, get them the medical health they need, get them back out in to the nest, healthy and with a second chance at life,” he said.

Jacobson said it’s especially gratifying to see many of the eagles the program has saved return as the adults that are producing young and rebuilding the eagle population. And, he said, wildlife officials and nestwatchers find about two to three new nests per year as the eagles repopulate their habitat.

Martinez-Leyva has been lucky. He’s only had to deal with one eagle that suffered from lead poisoning along the Salt River. The eagle later died. But other nestwatchers have saved up to 60% of all that year’s nestlings, said Robin Silver, co-founder and board member of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Silver calls the group heroes. “I have personally observed nest watchers bravely walk up to drunken riflemen shooting wildly at everything in the Bartlett nest breeding area to stop the risk,” said Silver.

Silver believes that the eagles could be even further ahead. He attributes the delisting to internal politics at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“They removed our eagles from the list in 2011 against the wishes of every Desert Nesting Bald Eagle expert,” he said.

Arizona Game and Fish officials said they and the other members of the consortium agree the nestwatchers are integral to preserving one of Arizona’s most important predators as well as a cultural and historic touchstone.

“We continue to deal with most of the threats to eagles that we used to have,” said Jacobson, “but we’ve also got this very dynamic management program to help reduce those threats so that despite the eagles’ diverse territories scattered across Arizona, they’re still able to be successful.”

Reach the reporter at debra.krol@AZCentral.com or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today. 

This article originally appeared on The Republic | azcentral.com: These bald eagle nestwatchers help an imperiled species soar again over Arizona

Loading...

XD Load Error

More from Arizona Republic

Arizona Republic
Arizona Republic
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon