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Where eagles dare to nest becomes Pasco tourist attraction

HOLIDAY — Andrea Webb has stood by the side of Baillies Bluff Road for five hours at a time. She bundled up in a parka during the winter, sweated during the recent heat wave and stood her ground during a rainstorm one afternoon, mascara running down her face.

"I looked like Alice Cooper that day," she said.

No matter. Webb, a photographer, has been transfixed for the last five months by a thing of natural beauty: High up in a dead, bone-white pine tree, on land owned by Progress Energy, is a nest where a pair of eagles have raised their two babies.

Birders and other experts say the nest, which is between the entrances to Anclote Gulf Park and Anclote River Park, is highly unusual because of its visibility to the public: Most times, eagles' nests are either hidden from view on private property or else located deep in the woods.

"It's a rare and unique opportunity for people interested in birds to observe the entire breeding cycle of the eagle," said Dave Bruzek, lead environmental specialist for Progress. "You can observe their courtship behavior, their nest-building behavior, their egg-laying, their rearing of the young."

With little fanfare, the nest near Progress' Anclote Power Plant has become an accidental tourist attraction as dozens of motorists sometimes park along the side of the road to catch a glimpse of the iconic birds. Visitors include everyone from locals checking in on the familiar pair to birding enthusiasts who learn of the nest on websites and make the stop part of their Florida trip.

"I've seen them from the beginning," said Mick Wellin, an Indiana snowbird who stopped by to see the eagles one last time Monday before heading home. "It's been a fabulous adventure."

This nest is thought to have been the October-to-May home to the same pair of eagles for seven years. Eagles typically have a strong fidelity to their nests, even after they've been gone up north for six months.

But the eagles' most passionate admirers also fear danger lies ahead next year, both to the humans and the birds.

The potential danger to humans? Traffic. Some days, dozens of cars are parked on the side of the road, most of them on the opposite side. But when those people cross the road, they might walk right into the path of oncoming motorists in the 45 mph zone.

"It looks like a football game," Webb said. "People with hundreds of thousands of dollars in (camera) lenses."

So last month, Webb and Barbara Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society pitched an idea to the Pasco County Tourist Development Council: How about putting up signs and building a scenic pull-off area near the nest on nearby county-owned property?

Though sports has dominated the debate over how to spend tourism money in recent years, Pasco County has long had an "It's Only Natural" theme in its tourism materials. Because the county is listed on the Great Florida Birding Trail, Pasco has been featured in birding magazines that generate inquiries from visitors, said Eric Keaton, tourism manager.

Keaton said officials from various agencies would need to meet and figure out how the pull-off area might work, noting that a bike trail is also planned to one day link the Holiday parks. He said the eagles might be something Pasco could promote. The county has about a dozen known eagles' nests, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"So far, so good," he said. "It's hard to turn away from bald eagles."

And it's the eagles for which many fear most deeply. That's because the tree that has held the estimated 800-pound nest is nearing its end.

Volunteers have spent this season running out to the scene after heavy winds, their hearts dreading the possibility of seeing a collapsed tree and a nest — with the eggs or flightless fledglings — on the ground.

"This may be the most-watched nest in Florida," Walker said.

Bruzek, the Progress Energy environmental specialist, worries, too. The company is weighing its options for what it can do once the eagles clear out this month.

One option is to relocate the nest to a platform structure. An alternative is to build a similar nest — sticks woven together, filled in with ground materials and lined with soft grass — and erect it into a nearby tree that's in better shape. Then Progress would ask state wildlife officials for a permit to remove the original nest, so that the eagles wouldn't have that option, he said, "and we'd risk watching the nest fall down."

But it's a risky proposition; the eagles might come back, not find the nest to their liking and go somewhere else.

"So yeah, I fully appreciate those folks want a nest they can sit and observe. But I can't guarantee that," he said. "We're talking about a wild animal that we have no control over their behavior."

Webb and Walker say they understand that possibility, too. They said that even if the eagles decide to go somewhere else, the spot is good for other bird-watching, including osprey and the red-headed woodpecker that was checking out the eagles' nest Monday while the raptors had gone to lunch. Another eagles' nest, which is harder to observe, is located at nearby Key Vista park.

Webb, who moved to north Pinellas last year when her husband changed jobs, said she'd never been much of a birdwatcher. She had just been going to local parks with her camera to take nature shots when someone asked her if she'd seen the Anclote eagles.

"You gain a sense of peace watching the birds," she said. "When you see them, you're just hooked on watching."

As if on cue, she suddenly spotted someone coming in for a landing: It was one of the juveniles, coming back to the nest from the water. "There he is, there he is!" she said. She pointed her camera and addressed her subject: "You're so beautiful!"

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Where eagles dare to nest becomes Pasco tourist attraction 05/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 8:57pm]
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