Monday, March 19, 2007

Philadelphia: Urban Eagle?

From the Philadelphia Inquirer

photograph by Debbie Beer
Sat, Mar. 17, 2007
200 years later, the Phila. eagles
By Tom Avril
Inquirer Staff Writer

Debbie Beer was out watching some ducks on the Delaware River, peering through her trusty Leica scope, when a guy in a pickup truck drove by and gave her a much better birding tip:
Not far away, nestled in the crotch of a tree, were hundreds of interlocking sticks and heavy branches, carefully arranged in a huge pile the size of a baby grand piano. It was a sight that quickens the pulse of anyone who knows birds: a bald eagle nest.
Even more remarkable, it was the first confirmed report of a nest in Philadelphia in at least 200 years, according to the state Game Commission, which announced the find yesterday.
No birds were there that day in early February, but Beer, 39, came back about 10 days later and saw one of the majestic brown-and-white creatures flying nearby. Then on Feb. 27, she saw the thrilling evidence that nature was following its reproductive course: a bird sitting in the nest.
"I was so excited," said the Springfield, Delaware County, outdoorswoman, still bubbling over her find. "I immediately called a bunch of people."
The Philadelphia find is only the latest example of the recovery of the national bird, once so imperiled by hunting and pollution that they numbered just a few hundred 40 years ago. Federal officials propose to remove them from the endangered species list this summer.
Game Commission biologists confirmed 116 active nests in the state last year, producing at least 134 young. New Jersey has at least 50 nesting pairs, most in Cumberland and Salem Counties, up from just one pair in 1973.
But there were none in the city that hosts a certain athletic team with the bird as its namesake. Until now.
"Even gray-haired biologists like me get a tingle down their spines when we watch a bald eagle fly down to the nest," said Doug Gross, a wildlife biologist with the commission. "It's something we've dreamed about all of our adult lives."
State officials will not disclose the exact location of the nest because bald eagles get spooked easily. If the parents leave the nest, the eggs won't make it.
The site, a vacant plot of marshy soil, is owned by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., which has been contacted by state and federal officials about the need to stay clear.
Corporation senior vice president John Grady said some employees had cautiously viewed the birds from afar.
Beer doesn't know the name of the truck driver who tipped her off, but he picked the right person to tell. She is conservation chairwoman for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.
Beer, marketing director for a party-supply company, called the Game Commission. Wildlife conservation officer Jerry Czech accompanied her to the nest to confirm her find.
Czech's first duty is to protect wildlife. But as a season ticketholder for the Eagles (nosebleed section), he's willing to consider the nest a good omen.
"Maybe we'll win the Super Bowl this year," Czech quipped.
The nest is a clear sign of a cleaner environment, said Nate Rice, an ornithologist at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. Fish make up a big part of the bird's diet, and cleaner rivers have led to more fish.
Also credited in the bird's rebound is the banning of the pesticide DDT. It was blamed for thinning the birds' eggshells, though some researchers dispute this.
The bald eagle was upgraded from endangered to "threatened" status in 1995. Once it's taken off the list entirely, it will still be legally protected and cannot be hunted or "disturbed."
Keith Russell, a birding historian and fellow member of Beer's birding club, said history's only other record of an eagle's nest in Philadelphia is a secondhand report in a 1910 journal article. That sighting was in Torresdale but was unconfirmed.
Why away from Philadelphia so long? History may offer guidance, in the form of unfriendly words from Benjamin Franklin. The city's favorite son objected to the eagle's selection as the national symbol, claiming it had "bad moral character."
A turkey, Franklin wrote, is a "much more respectable bird."
Beer has no such misgivings.
Almost every day since she first saw the bird in the nest, she has returned faithfully to the site, always remaining several hundred yards away. Her favorite memory so far came March 8 at 5:30 p.m.
One of the birds - she's not sure if it was the male or female - was sitting alone on the nest when its mate flew back to the tree and landed on a nearby branch. Little by little the mate scooted toward the nest. Then, the first bird hopped out, and the second quickly took its place atop the precious eggs - an avian changing of the guard.
"The sun was setting, purple and orange," she recalled dreamily. "The light was behind me, so the light was on the nest. It was just like magic."

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