Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – If you had two, and sometimes four of California’s 1,000-plus American Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in your backyard, you might soon make the acquaintance of scientists and tree climbers too, plus news scribblers and snappers and, this being the cyber-age, tens of thousands of social media and streaming video followers as well.
Last Friday, all of the above gathered at the 120-foot Douglas fir that hosts the Humboldt Bay Eagles (HBEs). Theirs was a joyful but serious occasion – the banding of the six-week-old, rapidly growing babies.
Since 2006, a breeding pair of eagles has been steadily hatching, raising and fledging pairs of young eaglets from two nests on the private location along the bay.
In December of 2012, the current nest was wired for video. So the world was watching online the following spring when Mr. and Mrs. HBE, as they have come to be known, delivered the eaglets named Kyle and Stormy.
The HBE family quickly developed a dedicated viewership, and were featured on NBC Nightly News. Thousands of diehard fans followed the daily exploits of the eagle family on the HBE EagleCam’s U-stream channel, discussing in the chat stream the parents’ comings and goings, the variety of food items they returned to the nest, and the feeding, growth and eventual departure of two adolescent eaglets.
The HBE’s support team of wildlife biologists quickly realized the eagle family’s educational potential, and moved to expand and upgrade the experience. Schools were involved in the project with an eaglet naming contest, and funds were raised to upgrade the video to two higher-resolution cameras, one with pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) capability and night vision.
Mr. and Mrs. HBE did their part as well, refurbishing their table-sized nest through winter and delivering two new eggs in March. On April 26 and 28, as legions of eagle enthusiasts followed the video feed online, this year’s as-yet-unnamed eaglets were born.
With the two rapidly growing young eagles about halfway to the point where they will be taking their first tentative flights from the nest, it was time to place lifetime identification bands on their legs and use the opportunity to take their measure as well.
The scientists on hand for last Friday’s effort came equipped with an array of tools and instruments, tree-climbing equipment and considerable enthusiasm. While approaching the delicate project with all the cautiousness and care their experience has taught them, the biologists made no secret of their excitement at getting to meet the darlings of the HBE channel personally.
Jim Campbell-Spickler is known as “TreeJimmy” to the HBE fans. A canopy ecologist, professional climber, chief biologist at Eco-Ascension Research and Consulting and IWS associate biologist, he has paid multiple visits to the nest, installing cameras and collecting eaglets for banding. He was to do the day’s heavy lifting.
Wildlife Biologist Dave Garcelon is president of the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS). He holds a U.S. Federal Bird Banding and Marking Permit as well as a California State Department of Fish and Wildlife Banding Permit that allows him to conduct the banding.
Not present but monitoring the action online was another member of the HBE science team, Dr. Peter Sharpe of the IWS.
The stage was set on the sunny, calm morning as the science team gathered at the property owner’s home along Humboldt Bay. The location is kept confidential to minimize potential trespassing by curiosity seekers.
Over croissants and coffee, the biologists discussed eagle issues and other news of the wildlife science community, and firmed up their plans for the day’s project. Campbell-Spickler was busy rigging himself up with the elaborate climbing and eagle-retrieval gear required for the mission.
The plan was simple: climb up to the 95-foot-high nest, carefully place the eaglets in separate bags and bring them down for banding and a health check, then return them home. The bands will allow later identification and aid understanding of the eagles’ behavioral patterns.
After the nosh and conversation, the band of biologists hoisted their bags and backpacks full of equipment and trudged up to the nest site atop a mountain ridge.
As Campbell-Spickler made his ascent, Garcelon and Hunt-von Arb prepared the banding and measurement devices. Since the site has electricity and an Internet link, they were also able to view Campbell-Spickler in the nest above on a laptop computer streaming the EagleCam. With well-practiced dispatch, he clambered into the nest, briefly allowed the youngsters to get used to him, then carefully collected each precious eaglet and placed it in a bag for the trip down the tree.
That story you may have heard as a child that if you touch a bird, its parents will reject it, isn’t true. “Eagles have almost no sense of smell,” Garcelon said. They do have superb vision though, and can even learn to recognize a bander’s vehicle when it comes within nest range.
As their children were being placed in protective custody, the eaglet’s parents circled the area warily in an unintended display of evolutionary biology in action.
Mr. and Mrs. HBE took up parenting duties on the site in 2006. With perhaps two more decades of annual eaglet production before them, it is wiser for the adults to not try to fight a human-sized nest interloper and possibly come to harm themselves.
Instead, the best bet for their species’ survival is to sacrifice, if necessary, this year’s offspring, remain healthy and produce more chicks in the years to come. Fortunately, this visitor’s intentions were entirely benign.
In minutes, the two babies had been brought down and unbagged for their procedure. Already the size of small dogs, the young eagles have lost all but traces of their newborn fluffy dander and are covered in mahogany-brown feathers. Their feet are the size of a child’s hand, each of four claws with gleaming, piano-black talons.
Hunt-von Arb held each precious eaglet as Garcelon took its measure, drew small blood samples and secured the numbered aluminum bands on the eaglets’ legs – each on a different leg – with a pop rivet. She was excited to do so, having previously held everything from pelicans to songbirds, though never an eagle – until now.
Apart from an occasional peep, the two were remarkably passive as they were held and measured. As the first one – dubbed “E2” for now – was processed, E1 sat nearby in a gangly heap, near motionless.
E1’s Hallux talon – the one at the back of the foot – came in at 34 millimeters, or about 1.3 inches. Its beak was 30.2 mm deep. E2 was slightly larger, with a 36.3 mm talon and 32.2 mm beak depth.
The check turned up a few surprises. One was an initial finding, later rescinded pending blood analysis, that the eaglets may both be males. It's fairly certain that E1 is, but E2’s sex is uncertain.
Unlike Kyle and Stormy, E1 and E2 appear to suffer from Avian Pox, a serious but generally not life-threatening disease the eaglets may have picked up from a mosquito bite, or from something they ate. E1 had a possible pox lesion on its left eye, E2 its right. The sores aren’t likely to be a problem unless they grow large enough to obstruct vision.
Overall, the two looked fairly good, though. “They’re fat little eaglets with nice feathers,” Garcelon said.
As the ground crew processed the eaglets, Campbell-Spickler made a quick trip back to the nest to replace a temporary PTZ camera. A cam with better resolution and night vision had gone out during a January storm. It had since been repaired, and was reinstalled.
Meanwhile, the video stream continued running on the laptop, occasionally blurting out a jangling ad for Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Creamer, Coca-Cola and other products that were not especially useful at the moment. Overhead, an osprey briefly circled the area, unknowingly risking the wrath of the probably-annoyed Mr. and Mrs. HBE. They could have taken out any eaglet-extraction angst on the smaller bird, but didn’t.
After more than an hour of work, with hundreds of photos taken of the avian superstars, it was time to return them home. The two were carefully placed back in their bags, toted over to the tree and hauled skyward by Campbell-Spickler.
In short order, he had placed them in their nest and was back on the ground, reflecting on the operation with his colleagues. As seen on the EagleCam, the eaglets seemed none the worse for wear, curling up for a nap, though Mr. and Mrs. HBE stayed away for a while, causing some consternation among fans in the U-stream chat feed. But eventually they returned and a grand fish dinner was had.
While not certain, it appears that Mr. HBE is the same male the Mrs. has been partnered with in past years. “His behaviors line up perfectly with last year,” said Hunt-von Arb. Particularly his fatherly “nestorating” – a term the online eagle-watching community came up with to describe conscientious nest restoration. Mrs. HBE is easier to identify due to a “wonky” feather that sticks out from one wing.
Soon, the eaglets will have more appealing names than “E1” and “E2.” A contest for schoolchildren to name the two has just concluded, and winning names will be selected from one local school and another out of the area.
Now operating under the wing of the IWS, Hunt von-Arb hopes to establish the Humboldt Bay Eagles as its own non-profit, with a focus on “citizen science.”
It could be a long-term project.“We’ve got 20-plus years to work with these guys if everything goes well,” Hunt-von Arb said.
“This is our labor of love,” said Campbell-Spickler.