HOLIDAY — The bald eagles have flown north for the summer, but they're expected back in the fall. However, the pair will arrive to find their 800-pound nest gone, along with the dead pine tree that once supported it.
During their absence, county officials and representatives of Progress Energy are trying to figure out a way to offer them a new home near the original one on the utility's property off Anclote Road.
"It's a shame the nest came down," said David Bruzek, lead environmental specialist for Progress Energy. "But the silver lining is it came down outside of nesting season when we didn't have any eggs in there."
The nest, thought to have sheltered the same pair for seven years, had evolved into a tourist attraction. Motorists would sometimes park along the side of the road to catch a glimpse of the birds and their young.
County and utility officials say they and others have been mulling over whether to build a home on a platform or a nest in another nearby tree in case the eagles return. Though the birds tend to return to the same places, there's no guarantee.
"We're looking at various possibilities to providing an alternative nest," Bruzek said. Now the best bet is building a nest of natural materials in an existing tree.
A platform was considered but Bruzek said he feared an artificial structure might create an imprint and limit the younger birds to rely only on artificial nests.
Officials also want to make sure any tree that is used is healthy and won't immediately suffer the fate of the previous one.
Progress Energy officials also want to make sure they're balancing the needs of the birds and their enthusiasts with the needs of the nearby power plant. And they want to make sure no laws are violated.
"You're not supposed to have any activity within a 330 (foot) radius of an eagles' nest," Bruzek said. Whether building a new nest for the birds counts as activity also will need to be determined. Bruzek plan to get any plans okayed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Birders and other experts say the nest, between the entrances to Anclote Gulf Park and Anclote River Park, was highly unusual because of its visibility to the public: Eagles' nests are usually either hidden from view on private property or else located deep in the woods.
Bruzek said the adult pair, if they have survived, will likely return to the area.
"If we build a nest out of natural materials, they might choose to enhance that and do the breeding cycle in that one."
However, the distractions of the highway and the fact that the original nest is gone may send the birds looking elsewhere. Eagles typically build nests deep in the woods. But some have adapted as more forests are cleared and replaced with shopping malls and tract homes.
"The urbanized birds are much more tolerant," Bruzek said.
As for the cost of building a new home, Bruzek doesn't expect to have to spend too much.
"I'm sure we'll have lots of volunteer help," he said.
Indeed, Pasco County officials, who have promoted the county as an alternative to beaches and theme parks, would love for the birds to return.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm for doing something in that area," former communications specialist Amy Ellis told Tourist Development Council members last week before resigning to begin a similar job with the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority. "We've looked at an education kiosk, a webcam so people could observe the birds. There was a lot of excitement when these birds had their offspring."