Eagles, volunteer watchers show all-American tenacity

What do the eagles and the dedicated watchers have in common?
Published February 7 2014
Updated February 7 2014


The nest weighs more than a ton and is perched 100 feet up in a longleaf pine near U.S. 41 and the Little Manatee River.

"This is probably the most-watched nest in the county," said Nancy Murrah, volunteer Eagle Watch coordinator for Hillsborough County. Drivers regularly pull off the road, some settling into lawn chairs with binoculars, to watch these American bald eagles.

"This particular couple, they're good parents," said Murrah, 56, as she watched last week. "I guarantee one of them is watching us right now."

These majestic raptors have raised their young here in the nest known as HL 027 for six years under Murrah's watch.

Eagles are no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act, so volunteers with Audubon Eagle Watch monitor some of the 1,500 nests throughout the state to make sure eagles coexist and thrive with increasing numbers of humans. There are 28 nests made of sticks and moss from North Tampa to Plant City. Three sit along Hillsborough Avenue.

Now is prime time to see the eaglets in action. The two siblings hatched on Dec. 20 from a bowl-shaped hollow in the nest. Their parents, whose wings span 7 feet, take turns bringing fish, snakes, rabbits, squirrels and cattle egrets. Each eaglet needs about 25 pounds of fresh meat a week. Nearly as big as their parents now, their heads are dark and won't turn white until they mature at about 5 years. They can climb to the top edge of the nest, which is 6 feet across and 10 feet deep. They are beginning to grow outer layers of feathers. By mid March they will be fledging, or learning to fly.

That is something to see, say the volunteers, who had spotted movement in the nest and then an eagle overhead.

"Oooh, what a dive," said Cheryl Merz, a new eagle watcher, with six nests.

"He's checking us out," said Murrah.

"Nothing in his talons. Legs are down," said Merz.

The eagle had landed.

Bald eagles live only in North America. By the late 1960s, only 400 pairs were nesting in the continental United States. Their numbers increased after the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT, which caused eggshells to be too thin to hatch eaglets.

Today, Florida is one of the best places to see eagles, said Doris Mager, who has a long history with the birds. In the past 50 years, she has cared for 80 eagles.

"I had a little hand in taking the eagle off the endangered list," said Mager, who at 88 is traveling across Texas to promote the nonprofit Save Our American Raptors. She goes from schools to parks educating people with her three raptors, a great horned owl, a screech owl and an American kestrel.

She was making paper bracelets last week to raise money as she watched her great horned owl scratch its face with a talon. Her van has 200,000 miles on it and has been broken down all summer, but Mager won't consider retiring.

This is a woman who was taking care of birds at the Maitland Audubon when on June 14, 1979, she climbed a rope ladder up a pine tree in Oviedo "50 feet if not more." There, she lived in an eagle nest for a week. It was a small nest that had been used just once, she said. She had watched over the nest and a sick eaglet that eventually fell out, covered with mites and too far gone to save.

Mager staged the event to raise money and awareness. The Audubon needed an aviary but had no money. Back then, many of the raptors she rehabilitated were shot by poachers.

The nest had been abandoned the year before, and when she climbed into it the eagles were roaming north.

"I wouldn't have done it when the eagles were there, naturally," Mager said. Friends had stayed on the ground hoisting supplies to her in a basket. "They wrote a song about me and had pizza parties. I don't know what they didn't do down there while I was up in the nest."

One man sent a ring made from a dollar along with a proposal. But the real highlight was the view.

"I could wake up in the morning and see the sun coming up over Lake Harney and realize that's what the bird saw," she said. "I wish I had words to describe it. I felt like I was in another whole world."

Hillsborough volunteers watched 23 nests last year. This year they found five more. A few near strawberry fields have failed to produce eggs.

Bald eagles always nest near water, because they prefer fish. But more and more are nesting on cellphone towers, which are taller than the longleaf pines they once preferred.

Besides management issues, said Matt Smith, Eagle Watch coordinator for Audubon Florida, "there's a hunch that many of us have that cell towers are not the best place for them to be nesting."

Smith calls eagles survivalists.

"People feel strongly about them because they are our national symbol," he said. "They're a fitting symbol because they are tenacious. They'll do anything they need to survive."

Some eagles stick around all year. Others leave for the summer, usually in May, going as far as Quebec, but tend to come back to the same nest by October with the same mate year after year. They usually return to breed within 100 miles of where they hatched.

Overhead, an eagle was returning to the nest from the Little Manatee River with a fish.

These eagles tend to tolerate humans, but advocates warn people to respect their space. When a nest gets too popular, it tends to fail.

They can live to 25 years in the wild, but about 30 percent of eagles die in their first year.

A couple pull over and stare through binoculars. Murrah tells them about the high mortality rate during the first migration. Eagles keep an eye on the people, she said. Some get easily spooked.

"They can probably count our eyelashes," Murrah said.

Another delivery from the other eagle parent has the volunteers excited. They wear eagle shirts. Murrah has an eagle charm around her neck and eagle earrings.

It's a large stick. Eagles are constantly rebuilding the nests. This, Murrah said, is probably the equivalent of a rail for the playpen.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.