- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Md. — A circling bald eagle overhead is the only sign there are babies in the nest 65 feet up a loblolly pine tree.

Biologist Craig Koppie isn’t sure what he’ll find in the nest until he climbs, peers inside and shouts down the good news — “Triplets!”

Mr. Koppie, a biologist specializing in endangered species for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now has a job even trickier than climbing a tall pine in search of bald eaglets.

His mission is to get the eaglets out of the nest without damage, into a dog crate, then to Vermont, where federal wildlife officials started a project three years ago to reintroduce bald eagles in the only state in the contiguous U.S. without a nesting pair.

On the collection day last week, Mr. Koppie climbed to the 5-foot-wide nest, blabbering so that the eaglets knew something is approaching. If Mr. Koppie were to sneak up quietly, the eaglets might get spooked and fall out of the nest.

Not that the baby eagles are small. Though nearly defenseless, without being able to fly or effectively use their sharp, black talons, the eaglets weigh about 8 pounds and spread their wings in alarm when Mr. Koppie climbs into their nest. Even from dozens of feet below, the size of the eaglets is imposing.

But Mr. Koppie, 51, has done this plenty of times before, so he knows the eaglets aren’t much danger at less than 9 weeks old, He calmly picks up one, wraps it in a towel, then puts cloth straps around the towel to make what he calls “a little straitjacket” for the bird. The eaglet, which is years away from having the bald eagles’ white head, is then placed in a black duffel bag and lowered by rope to another biologist waiting on the ground.

Biologists have a small window in the spring baby season to collect the eaglets. The baby birds have to be old enough to tear their food but too young to jump out of a nest, meaning the eaglets have to be collected from the nests in their seventh or eighth week. They are spotted by overhead airplane surveillance.

The mother eagle never approaches the nest even as her young are taken away, though she circles in the sky, making a squeaky chirping sound.

“Compared to other birds of prey, eagles are pretty docile,” said Michael Amaral, a senior endangered-species biologist who will take the eaglets to Addison, Vt. Despite their fearsome image, Mr. Amaral said, bald eagles are relatively easy to work with and won’t attack humans climbing into one of their nests.

Mr. Amaral waits on the ground for the eaglet to be lowered, then carefully removes the towel. It’s apparent the baby eagle doesn’t like being moved, but it doesn’t try to fly or run away. It opens its beak in a little pant, but doesn’t snap as Mr. Amaral and an assistant clamp metal tagging devices to its legs.

Once the eaglets are tagged, Mr. Amaral and Mr. Koppie wrap the birds again and head to a truck with dog crates in the back. The eaglets are then unwrapped and put into separate crates.

Mr. Koppie has collected six eaglets for this year’s shipment to Dead Creek State Wildlife Management Area in Vermont. There, they’ll be put in what’s called a “hack box,” where biologists will drop food for a few more weeks until the eaglets are ready to venture out.

Volunteers watch the boxes 24 hours a day to prevent raccoons or human vandals from getting to the baby eagles, but the humans are kept out of sight to prevent the eagles from getting used to them.

The eagle project started three years ago at the request of Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, who asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officials what project they’d like to have funded. Biologists came up with the $250,000, three-year plan to reintroduce bald eagles in Vermont.

Maryland was chosen as a likely place to collect eaglets because of its ample population.

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