Bald eagle comeback - a case of coming to terms to coexist
By: JOHN FLORES
With massive wings pushing against the air to slow its descent, the bald eagle dropped towards the concrete surface of Oceaneering International’s manufacturing yard in Morgan City.
Surprised, yard technician Ira Finley called out to a co-worker close by, “Hey! Look at that eagle,” before it took off.
Holding his arms out wide, Finley described the eagle’s enormous size. “Its wings spread out at least 3 or 4 feet. It was huge. It went to land and grab a piece of trash that was moving along the ground in the breeze. When it realized what it was, it flew up and lit in the top of an oak tree. We have a big side yard full of old dive equipment we store. I guess they have rodents in there. No one goes in there much and eagles sit over it sometimes.”
Stories like Finley’s occur up and down this waterfront property that’s part of the old Intracoastal Waterway south of Railroad Avenue. Here, oil field industry meets the prime wetland habitat eagles prefer around the Atchafalaya Basin. Moreover, this is also where they have adapted and learned to co-exist with humans.
Decimated by loss of habitat, illegal shooting, pollution and in part by pesticides such as DDT, the bald eagle was pushed to the brink, where in 1978 the raptor was placed on the Endangered Species List.
The seventh annual Eagle Expo that continues locally through Saturday is simply a way to enjoy and celebrate, plus bring attention to the comeback these majestic birds have made over the recent decades.
Tom Hess, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist Supervisor at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in southwest Louisiana, participated in some of the early efforts to restore the bald eagle. Moreover, Hess pointed out rules that had to be developed to protect them, but not so restrictive they became a detriment to industrial commerce.
Hess said, “In the early ’70s, there were about five active nests documented, and one of them was there in Gibson. That was kind of the center. The last stand of the eagles was right there. When I was involved in the program, what we did was take a pretty simplistic approach to it — protect the nest trees. Don’t touch or damage a nest tree and keep a buffer around the tree. Initially we used a mile. We did some research and reduced it to 1,500 feet. Then we found you could run an airboat about 750 feet away from a tree where it didn’t affect nesting and we eventually reduced it to 300 feet.
“We came a long way, but were cautious at first and we tried to apply science to the decisions we made. We always developed ‘work-arounds’ for people to get their work done and protect the species at the same time. The key to all these endangered species is being able to integrate people’s work and keep the industry going. That’s what promotes conservation.”
According to Hess, in 1992 the department increased their efforts surveying nests. The previously documented 45 active nests doubled to 90 as a result and increased in subsequent years, where today they number in the hundreds. What’s more, industry has had little to no impact on the population.
“By the time we quit the survey in 2007-08, we had 387 active nests that produced 530 young,” Hess said with satisfaction. “The young per active nest was 1.37, and in order to maintain a population it has to stay above 0.9. Over the years it has stayed right at or around 1.4, so the production is high.
“Eagles have come back in a big way, and the reason for that is people quit shooting them, and also the improvement in water quality. But, nobody in industry intentionally pollutes anymore, really. It’s so much better today. Those eagles hanging around industry, sitting on top of cranes and equipment — it’s really pretty cool. They get acclimated and habituated to boat traffic and the work there. They know workers aren’t going to hurt them. They are smart in that respect.”
With fish being a bald eagle’s primary food staple, the region surrounding Morgan City clearly has plenty of food resources. But, eagles also need areas to perch and nest, all of which some attendees of the 2012 Eagle Expo will take boat rides in to local waters to see. Several different trips are planned and depending on which excursion participants select, they include traveling into the Atchafalaya Basin or parts of Lake Verret, Lake Palourde, Grassy Lake, Bayou Black, Turtle Bayou and Bayou Long.
Where wildlife is concerned it’s all about energy. Whether energy is to put on fat reserves to produce young, migrate long distances or survive harsh winters or periods of drought, birds and mammals are similar. It’s often the easy meal, where little to no energy is expended, that makes the difference.
Bald eagles are also carrion eaters and will scavenge just like vultures. As the local population of eagles has increased to the point it has become commonplace to see one, at the local landfill in Berwick, eagles have found a ready-made food source as a result of human development. On any given day during the winter and early spring, eagles are there stealing food from vultures, common grackles and seagulls.
Hess said, “Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana are big eagle states. In Florida, they categorize their eagles as urban, suburban and country. The urban eagles are in places where there are lots of people. You’ve got nests in people’s yards. Instead of hanging around cranes and barges like here, they are right there in the neighborhoods.
“Then you have some eagles that are shy and timid — they’re wild and stay back in the country. And, we have the same thing here. But, the reason they are hanging around the dump is they’re making an easy living and they’re eating scraps.”
Though the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2007, studies continue in order to learn more about them. Currently, an effort to capture a number of bald eagles to place satellite telemetry antennae on them is being conducted in the Houma area.
Mandalay/Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge Manager Paul Yakupzack said, “Seventy percent of all the eagle nests currently documented in the state are within a 50-mile circle, with Houma at the center. Over in the Morgan City area there is sort of a mother-lode of eagles. But, in a cooperative effort between several agencies such as the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), United States Geological Survey, the LDWF and some others, the project consists of capturing adult and juvenile bald eagles and placing satellite telemetry on them. Mandalay is providing quarters for biologists and some logistical support.
“Through GPS, they’ll be able to track every hour the location of the eagles. They’ll be able to get an idea of the birds’ home range, learn their migration corridor, and how long the birds stay at each stop along the way. Studies like this have been done in Florida and South Carolina, but never in Louisiana. We’ve always guessed eagles migrated north to bigger lakes in places like Kentucky, but no one really knows.”
The Eagle Expo runs through Saturday featuring seminars, workshops, raptor presentations and opportunities to meet and network with fellow birders. For more information on the 2012 Eagle Expo, contact the CCVCB at 985-395-4905 or visit online at www.cajuncoast.com.