By Visitors to Alaska often come with a vision of seeing our national bird, the Bald Eagle, soaring across snow covered mountainsides and diving into icy waters to snag fish. Those of us who live on the Kenai Peninsula become jaded by the fact that we are home to hundreds of breeding and wintering eagles, but for the rest of the nation it is a special treat.
The contiguous U.S. population got as low as 487 breeding pairs in 1963. With our plethora of eagles, what the public doesn’t see is all of the work that land managers, private industry, and private property owners do to ensure that the vision of soaring Bald Eagles remains possible for future generations. Bald Eagles are protected by both the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. While most people know that killing Bald Eagles will likely land you in jail and stick you with stiff fines, few people know how the presence of nesting Bald Eagles on their property also carries some added responsibilities.
In short, the eggs, nests, and nestlings of Bald Eagles are protected and we are all required to ensure our activities do not cause nest failure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska has produced a set of recommendations to help identify how close is too close for certain activities. In the 330-foot primary zone around the nest, major activities like land clearing, development of commercial or residential buildings, timber harvest, surface mining, road construction and power line erection should be delayed until the chicks fledge. There are some activities that require an even larger buffer around an active nest. There are many examples where nesting eagles have become tolerant to these types of activities but, under most circumstances, following these guidelines will greatly reduce the chances of causing the loss of a nest. Nesting in Alaska generally occurs from late April through mid-August so consider this if you are planning construction activity near a nest.
Recently, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge went through this planning process with an eagle nest near the site for our new visitor center. This eagle nest had been active 4 out of the last 15 years so we recognized that the nest might be active again when construction for the visitor center started this spring. Sure enough, just after construction timelines were set and the ground clearing prep work began, two eagles set up shop on the nest.
These eagles were not banded so there is no way of knowing if it is the same pair seen in previous years, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Construction activities were put on hold until the eagles completed their nesting cycle. While a lot of people were disappointed at the delay, our visitor services staff decided to make lemonade out of lemons. They developed new hikes that incorporated good views of the nest through a spotting scope and added new educational material to take advantage of this unique opportunity. We watched as the female diligently sat on the eggs for the 35-day incubation period through an unusually cold spring.
On May 31, we noticed the pair on the nest looking down at their feet. After the male left, the female tried to settle down into the nest in her usual incubating position, but she was constantly adjusting and peering into the nest. We can only assume the adults were reacting to eggs hatching. It was very exciting and right on track with the predicted June 1st hatch date.
A few days late4r on June 6, someone noticed there were no eagles at the nest. This was a little disconcerting as experienced eagles would never leave week old chicks unattended. The next morning, one of our pilots reported the nest empty as he flew over en route to doing a swan survey.
There were some indications that this was a relatively inexperienced pair. They did very little prep work on the nest before laying eggs. Experienced birds have a certain way they like the nest and usually spend time relining it with grass and beefing up weak spots. Experienced eagles are also very intolerant of other eagles near the nest, yet this pair allowed an immature eagle to hang out within 40 yards of the nest for hours on several occasions. We will never know the cause of the nest failure, but it is not uncommon for younger birds to lose their nest to ravens. We even speculated that this year’s mosquito hatch just drove them crazy and they decided to abort until next year.
Nest failure in early attempts is common for young birds and we can only hope they learned from the experience as we did. Visitors were able to have a rare glimpse into the nesting process and we were all able to appreciate the difficulties eagles face in pulling off a successful brood. As ground preparations resume for construction of our new visitor center, we hope that a pair will again select this nest site next year and we can view it from our new building.
We have retooled our guided hikes to focus on other amazing things happening in the environment around the Visitor Center. There are also weekly fitness hikes starting at the Headquarters Building, Discovery Hikes in the Skilak Loop Rd area, PEEPs Preschool Programs, and events like Wild Flower Fun Day and Wild Berry Fun Day. Call the Refuge 262-7021, stop by our Visitor Center on Ski Hill Road, or check us out of Facebook to see the schedule for the summer’s activities.
Todd Eskelin is a Biological Technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. He specializes in birds and has conducted research on songbirds in many areas of the state. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.