- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

SEAGOVILLE, Texas (AP) - The first to notice them, back in 2008, was a ranch manager usually concerned with Brahmans rather than birds.

Perhaps the bald eagles were just passing through, sampling the local fish, fowl and tasty little mammals. Or perhaps they were scouting a homesite.

As a species, bald eagles had survived a tough century. For a range of reasons, the national emblem became scarce to nonexistent in the states south of coastal Alaska, where they remained common. By 1963, just 487 nesting pairs were known in all the Lower 48. From 1900 to 1964, the grand total of recorded bald eagle sightings in Texas was two.

But by 2008, bald eagles were well into a stupendous comeback. Nesting pairs had topped 10,000. The bald eagle was off the endangered species list. Reports of sightings poured in from people who previously had never seen a bald eagle outside a zoo.

So in 2010, when John DeFillipo started as the first, and so far only, director of the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, an environmental and water project built amid Kaufman County ranchland 25 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, he had reason for hope.

DeFillipo, a Mississippi native who had majored in business but converted to conservation work, scoured the wetland, woods and rural subdivisions for the elevated, absurdly huge nest of Haliaeetus leucocephalus. He didn’t find one.

In 2011, however, tree branches appeared on one arm of a nearby electrical tower, one of hundreds of lattice towers - those alien-robot-looking structures - that carry 345,000 volts from Texas power plants to the eastern reaches of Dallas-Fort Worth.

“It was just a smattering of sticks,” DeFillipo told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1Eqs9XY), recalling what was probably the work of juveniles not yet expert at nest building. As they perfected their skills, they eventually began laying and hatching eggs and raising young on a platform that, under the wrong circumstances, might kill them by electrocution.

In the four years since that first sign of risky homesteading, an alliance of people and nature has produced a string of successes that would have seemed impossible a few decades ago.

The eagles, now an experienced breeding pair, were saved from fatal shocks, their nest and its adopted metal arm moved last summer to a new, safe tower built solely for them a quarter-mile away.

Then those who engineered it had to wonder whether, when the eagles returned for the fall, the new arrangement would strike them as a good place to raise babies.

This spring the relocated nest holds the answer: one eaglet - hatched, feeding, growing and preparing for its independence this summer.

Rescuing this one breeding pair took the cooperation of raptors, engineers, conservationists, biologists, volunteers and corporate executives.

There were also craftsmen in steel. After fabricating thousands of lattice towers for electric lines over decades, they thought this one felt different, more like a legacy. So this time they signed their work.

One of the signatures engraved on an oval plate on the eagle’s tower belongs to Ray Buck, 57, a goateed, hard-hatted Texan on whose thick right forearm is tattooed “Lone Star Lover.”

Buck put it simply.

“We were proud to be able to do this,” he said.

The victory was a long time coming.

On June 28, 2007, a rescued, hand-raised bald eagle named Challenger took off from the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., playing for the cameras and dignitaries as it wheeled over the Tidal Basin before returning to its handler. The ceremony marked the species’ removal from the endangered list.

Bald eagles aren’t the only recovery success. Waterfowl have come back, greatly aided by habitat restoration and controls on hunting. Some, such as snow geese, are now numerous enough to have become nuisances.

Peregrine falcons and brown pelicans are also off the bubble, helped, like the bald eagle, by legal protection and the 1972 ban on use of the insecticide DDT in the U.S. DDT was proven to make eggshells too thin to reach maturity.

Peregrines now show up in Dallas during migrations, said Omar Bocanegra, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ecological services office in Arlington. Brown pelicans have been seen on local waters.

And bald eagles, Bocanegra said, appear now at just about every North Texas lake.

That is a new development. No bald eagles were reported in Texas from 1900 until a single sighting near Houston in 1911, according to eBird.org, a record-keeping website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.

No others were reported in Texas until May 7, 1953, near Greenville, east of Dallas. Birder Richard Kinney said that sighting was in records he received from the late Warren Pulich, author of the 1988 reference Birds of North Central Texas.

The next Texas bald eagle sighting occurred on the Gulf Coast in 1965 and two more in the Panhandle in 1967. From about the mid-1970s on, gains have been steady to outright explosive.

Bald eagle sightings have blanketed North Texas for a decade. Just this year, eagles have turned up at a dozen spots within the region’s urban footprint and at nearly two dozen more in surrounding counties.

Those include Kaufman County, where in 2011-12 eagles built their home next to the John Bunker Sands Wetland Center.

The wetland sprouted from a Dallas heir’s conservation ethics. But its roots lay in pure Lone Star legend.

Long before he died in 1974, billionaire H.L. Hunt had become the model for outsized Texas personality and even bigger Texas oil money. The TV show Dallas, which first ran from 1978 to 1991, made the stereotype world-famous.

Among the children of Hunt’s daughter Caroline Rose Hunt was John Bunker Sands, who found his calling at the Texas cattle ranches owned by Rosewood Ranches, a subsidiary of his mother’s trust. Bunker Sands was a lover of nature given, by circumstances, the ultimate gifts: land, water and the means to do something with them.

At the Ennis Ranch, along the Trinity River south of Dallas, and at the Seagoville Ranch, on the Trinity’s East Fork in Kaufman County just across the Dallas County line, Sands’ commitment led to the construction of artificial wetlands. Natural ones, among the most important habitats, were disappearing fast. Before Sands’ death from pancreatic cancer in 2003 at age 54, his efforts won praise and awards.

At Seagoville, water from the river first runs through planted marshes, where plants help filter out impurities. Then big pumps carry it back north to rejoin the North Texas Municipal Water District’s supplies. The wetland also attracts wildlife, prompting the 2010 opening of the educational center bearing Sands’ name, run by a nonprofit organization.

During the eagle nesting season of late 2012 and early 2013, the nest grew as the birds honed their construction technique. The male gathered sticks and presented them to the female. An acceptable offering became part of their expanding home. A reject was dropped to the ground.

Workers from Oncor, the Dallas electricity-delivery company that owns and operates the lines, watched the nest from a nearby road, concerned about the birds’ safety and the nest’s effects on maintenance. Oncor had already been talking to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about managing eagles on its towers.

With big trees for nesting becoming rare, some breeding pairs choose unnatural platforms, often with power lines. “Towers - those are big attractants,” said Jerry E. Thompson, regional permit chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

On some towers, wires are near enough to each other for an eagle - which can have a 7½-foot wingspan, greater than Dirk Nowitzki’s - to touch two at once. Perching on one is safe, but linking two is lethal.

That wasn’t a risk for the Kaufman County eagles, thanks to the tower’s design. But a bald eagle still could get a deadly shock if a release of its mostly liquid waste - a “streamer” - formed even a fleeting pathway for current between a wire below and the bird above.

In March 2013, Oncor asked DeFillipo what he thought should be done.

He soon had his answer: Build a new nest tower away from the electric lines. While the eagles were gone for the late summer, move the tower arm with nest intact onto the new tower. And then see if the eagles would accept it upon their autumn return.

He didn’t need to sell the idea. Oncor agreed immediately. So did Falcon Steel, the company that makes lattice towers for Oncor and other utilities, as well as steelwork, such as sign supports, for the Texas Department of Transportation.

The partners settled on building a lattice tower that would look like the one the eagles had already chosen. From the beginning, DeFillipo said, “Oncor focused on making this happen.”

Oncor’s environmental staff talked with federal officials about a permit to move the nest. Although no longer listed as endangered, eagles are still guarded by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, among the oldest federal wildlife laws.

Thompson, who oversees permits under the act in Texas and other Southwestern states, said Oncor didn’t have to save the nest. Under the rules, the company could have simply removed it if Oncor proved it was causing a “functional hazard” with the power lines.

Oncor wanted to protect it. “That was voluntary,” Thompson said. The company filed a permit application and paid a fee: $500.

DeFillipo worked with Hunt and Sands family members. The new tower would be on ranch-owned land. The ranch agreed to set a protective buffer around it year round, widening it when young were in the nest.

The keys would be timing - the move had to happen when the eagles were gone for the season - and location. Planners had to make sure they weren’t muscling in on another pair’s territory. As eagle numbers have grown, so has competition for nest sites.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved the permit in late August 2013, leaving just enough time to do the work before the eagles returned for autumn.

On Sept. 15, 2013, however, DeFillipo looked across the marsh and saw the male on the nest. “There’s Plan A, Plan B and Plan Eagle,” he said. No work could take place until nesting, breeding and, if young resulted, brooding, hatching and fledging. That meant summer 2014.

Thompson extended the permit for a year.

Most of the workers at Falcon Steel’s Kaufman plant are local natives and nearly lifetime employees. The plant is only 12 miles or so from the wetland, as an eagle might fly. But few knew of hometown eagles or had ever seen one anywhere.

“I was shocked to learn there were eagles living here,” said Rodney Wilson, the plant’s assistant general manager. Others on the crew nodded.

The story is that the company got its name when its founders were debating what to call it when one looked out a window and saw a falcon. It might actually have been a hawk, but the name stuck.

Falcon Steel doesn’t make steel, but shapes it. A lattice tower can have thousands of pieces. The company donated the eagles’ tower, including steel worth $35,000.

Oncor covered other costs.

The costs came during Chapter 11 bankruptcies for Falcon Steel and for Oncor’s parent, Energy Future Holdings, but no creditors objected, said Jim Taylor, who came on as Falcon’s CEO to manage a turnaround. “Not everything has to have money behind it,” he said.

Falcon emerged from bankruptcy with all creditors paid 100 percent and the existing ownership - employees, including many who work the toughest shop jobs - intact. EFH’s bankruptcy is continuing.

Falcon’s IT chief, David Smid, went to the Internet to learn how to put a webcam on the tower; eagle cams are ever-popular online. Others bent, welded and bolted the parts. They added a lookout perch for the male and reinforcement under the nest platform.

A galvanizing dip in molten zinc, kept 24/7 at 840 degrees, made the steel shiny, leading plant manager Larry Minor - “I’m in the office because I’m not a very good fabricator” - to worry that the gleam would scare off the eagles.

An unexpected year in the outside storage yard, waiting for the eagles to leave, took the sheen off.

On July 12, 2014, Oncor temporarily rerouted the electric lines, and Chapman Group Contractors moved in. Workers surrounded the nest with green bubble wrap. Then they attached a crane, unbolted the arm and lowered the arm and nest.

Debra Bills, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was watching. “It looked like such a construction nightmare,” she said, “with the crane and the bubble wrap and the big, dirty flatbed truck.”

The spectators got their first look into the nest. They were impressed. “Not sticks,” Falcon’s Wilson said. “Small trees. And bones.”

The next day the contractor put the arm on the new tower. Then the crews left and the waiting began.

That fall the eagles returned and surveyed the changes. They began to build - on the old tower. Workers climbed and removed a few sticks every few days as gentle guidance. By Oct. 9, 2014, the eagles had taken the hint and began adding to the old nest on the new tower.

By late January, it was obvious that the relocated nest had new eggs. And in the past couple of weeks, an eaglet has appeared over the rim of their giant home.

Schoolchildren and visitors now scan the nest from the wetland center’s porch. Ray Buck brought his wife out to see what he had helped build. He plans to make such visits a family tradition.

Minor recounted his personal list of amazements - the unexpected nearness of the national emblem; the pride of usually anonymous labor.

But one stood out.

“It worked,” he said.

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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