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Program marks 35 years of keeping an eye on Arizona’s bald eagle nesting sites

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APACHE JUNCTION – In a tree along the Salt River, a male bald eagle feeds its two chicks a fish just pulled from the water.

Looking through a telescope from a half mile away, Jean Marie Spilker jots down “NF,” short for “nest feeding,” on a sheet filled with abbreviations forming a coding system for monitoring the birds’ every move.

“Look at how adorable the babies are!” she exclaims. “I love how goofy they look when they’re little. They look like baby dinosaurs covered in fur.”

As the Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program celebrates its 35th anniversary, nestwatchers like Spilker are spending four months at 14 sites around the state monitoring breeding pairs and protecting the chicks. Spilker and her nestwatch partner, Lisa Helgren, camp out at the Goldfield site for 10 days at a time before they get a four-day break.

The process continues from February through June, starting when the eagles’ eggs are incubating and ending when the nestlings are ready to leave.

“Some people wonder how we can sit here all day and do this, but if you love the birds it’s a great experience,” Spilker said. “You have to really love nature and living outside to do this job, because if you don’t, it’ll be a long four months.”

Kenneth Jacobson, head of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Bald Eagle Management Program, said Nestwatchers began in 1978 as a volunteer effort by the U.S. Forest Service and Maricopa Audubon. At the time, the bald eagle was an endangered species with only 11 known breeding pairs in Arizona.

Today the species is no longer endangered and there are 68 bald eagle breeding areas in the state. Arizona Game and Fish contracts nestwatchers on behalf of the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee, which coordinates the efforts of 26 government bodies, private organizations and tribes with an interest in preserving the species.

“What we do has a great significance,” Jacobson said. “The fact that we’ve lasted for 35 years is a testament to how strong the program is and how much we’ve done for birds in Arizona.”

Since the bald eagle was de-listed as an endangered species in 2007, member organizations in the Southwestern Bald Eagle Management Committee have provided the approximately $300,000 needed annually to run the nestwatcher program.

Nestwatchers are required to camp out during their shifts, but Spilker and Helgren say securing the population’s future is worth some inconveniences.

“For many of the people that I’ve worked with, I’d say another big challenge other than the camping is boredom,” Spilker said. “We live in a world where people are online and texting every day but we don’t really get to do that, so it affects your human relationships in terms of being able to communicate with other people.

“But for us, it’s a really great opportunity to disconnect from the busyness of the modern world and enjoy being outdoors. We get listen the sounds of nature at night instead of the sounds of traffic in the city.”

Nestwatchers, who receive $100 a day, are responsible for ensuring that the general public stays far enough away to avoid scaring off the eagles and endangering their nestlings. This is no easy task at the Goldfield site with thousands of Salt River tubers passing by during the warmer months.

“We deal with a lot of the public and try to educate them on the dangers they’re posing to this protected area,” Spilker said. “We report helicopters that fly too low, and tell people with motorized hang gliders, ATVs and tubers to leave the area when they get too close to the nest.”

If the warnings go unheeded, the nestwatchers are authorized to call the sheriff.

Although the Goldfield site doesn’t often deal with one of the biggest dangers to bald eagles – people with guns – at some other sites nestwatchers have to warn hunters to stay away from nests. Robin Silver, co-founder of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, said he is astounded by their efforts.

“They’ve displayed amazing bravery over the years, going up to yahoos with guns like that,” he said. “The fact is that desert nesting bald eagles have survived in good part because of the program and the heroic people that work for it.”

Because bald eagles are sensitive to noise, anyone wandering too close can cause adults to “flush,” or flee, the nest. This exposes the eggs and chicks to a number of dangers.

“We like to monitor through incubation, which is a very sensitive time because the eggs really can’t be exposed for any length of time,” Spilker said. “So if a bird is severely flushed from the nest during incubation, the eggs can break or if they’re left out in the cold, they can die.”

If chicks fall out of trees, nestwatchers call animal rescue workers.

Nestwatchers have two different shifts. Friday through Sunday, they work from dawn until dusk watching the nest, recording any activity and making sure members of the public stay away. Those days can be as long as 16 hours as the season wears on.

Monday through Thursday, the nestwatchers also explore the habitat around nests to see where the bald eagles are getting food and how they are interacting with other eagles.

Spilker said there’s another payoff apart from the pay she receives for her four months’ work: the day young eagles leave the nest.

“You watch those little chicks from the time that they’re very small until the day they first take off on the breeze and there’s an incredible feeling of success when that happens,” she said.