CLEARWATER — Louise Roy craned her bird-watching scope toward the cell tower 100 yards away.
As she peered through the lens, an exciting scene was unfolding: A brown, 10-week-old bald eagle chick was perched at the top of the tower.
Roy, the coordinator for EagleWatch in Pinellas County, has watched this pair of chicks nearly every day since April. Tuesday was the first time she saw one of the eaglets “branching,” or standing away from its nest — a crucial step before a bird takes flight, usually days later, for the first time.
The nest sits across the street and less than 1,000 feet from BayCare Ballpark, home of the minor league Clearwater Threshers and the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training, map data shows.
While the eaglets are still in a vulnerable growth stage, Roy and other bird advocates are pushing to stop firework displays at the stadium, including one scheduled Saturday after the minor league game between the Threshers and the Dunedin Blue Jays. They say the explosions could spook the birds, which are still unable to fly, causing them to fall hundreds of feet. They could be severely injured or die, they say.
Fireworks have already been launched from the stadium five times this year, including four days in May, according to Doug Kemp, general manager for the ballpark. This Saturday’s fireworks are still scheduled as planned, Kemp said, but the park has reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for guidance.
The nesting eagles were “brought to our attention recently,” Kemp said in an email, and now the ballpark hopes to receive clarification from the federal agency “as soon as possible so that we can determine next steps regarding this promotion.” In an emailed response, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was communicating with Kemp about how to avoid disturbing the eagles, but could not immediately provide specifics.
Saturday’s game honors first responders and is hosted by St. Petersburg-based Beachside Hospitality Group, according to the stadium’s website.
Weekly blasts from the stadium could be harming the birds, and the fireworks should be postponed until after the eaglets have left their nest, according to Barbara Walker, president of Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue. The same pair of eagle parents had eaglets hatch in January, but they died about a month later. There were no firework displays around the time the first pair died, according to dates of firework shows provided by Kemp.
“I think that it’s going to put the eaglets and the nest in grave risk if they do more fireworks,” Walker said. “From the rescuers’ point of view, I think avoiding the conflict ahead of time is the best approach.”
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Pinellas County agrees: Setting off fireworks could pose a risk to the animals, according to spokesperson Tony Fabrizio. The county’s environmental management team contacted the ballpark and encouraged them to confirm with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if it’s safe to proceed with fireworks, Fabrizio said.
The federal agency’s bald eagle guidance is clear about activities, including fireworks and outdoor concerts, when eagles are present. According to the wildlife service’s 2007 National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines:
“In proximity to the nest, these kinds of activities should be conducted only outside the breeding season.”
Federal guidance also urges against “blasting and other activities that produce extremely loud noises” within a half-mile (or 2,640 feet) of an active nest. That recommendation includes the use of fireworks, according to the wildlife service. The only exception is if the eagles have demonstrated a “greater tolerance” to loud noises, according to the guidelines.
The fireworks are launched from the Carpenter Complex fields just to the north of the ballpark, Kemp said. That’s roughly 1,000 feet from the nest location, according to Google maps.
Still, the federal wildlife guidelines are murky when it comes to enforceable law, according to Jaclyn Lopez, an environmental law professor at Stetson University and former Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She noted the use of the word “should” in the guidance, a softer word legally than “must.”
Under current federal guidance, the wildlife service recommends avoiding blasting fireworks in the vicinity of a nest, Lopez said, but the language is unclear about whether it would violate federal eagle protection laws. There’s “a lot of discretion” from the service about whether permits would be required for fireworks, but at the very least, the stadium could move the fireworks farther from the nest or wait until the eagles have left, Lopez said.
Florida’s bald eagle nesting season typically runs September through May, but eagles have been known to nest before and after that time frame. Eaglets typically fledge around March, Roy said. The likely reason these eaglets are still in their nest so late in the season is because the first pair of eaglets died earlier in the year, restarting the nesting clock.
“Something scared (the adult eagles) off the nest,” Roy said. “The eaglets did die because their parents never returned.”
The adults did eventually return, though, and the new eaglets are still preparing to fledge, or leave the nest for good. Besides the proximity to the ballpark, the cell tower is located in a fairly bustling area. It borders a Toyota service center and sits next to U.S. 19, a busy highway that runs north to south through Pinellas County.
Eaglets make their first flights within 10 to 12 weeks after hatching, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They fledge in the first few days after that first flight.
In an email sent to Walker on May 25, an eagles permit biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that the agency’s guidelines reference a half-mile buffer for blasting, pile driving and other loud noises while the nest is in use.
“This distance can be increased or reduced depending on the tolerance of the pair,” emailed Ulgonda Kirkpatrick. “If the nest has fledged young, the buffer wouldn’t apply because disturbance is no longer a concern for the nesting season. It just needs to (be) far enough away to not burn up the nest.”
The eaglets have not fledged yet, or left their nest, Roy said.
The fireworks are still on as planned, and there are other firework events scheduled June 17 and July 8. There’s also a fireworks event schedule for the Fourth of July, “the largest fireworks display of the season over BayCare Ballpark,” the park’s website states.
“It’s ironic,” Lopez said. “One symbol of patriotism is threatening another.”