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January 2009
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Orange Flags and an Eagle Nest
Filed under: General, Birding & Outdoors, Florida & SE US, Bald Eagle Nest
Posted by: Ken @ 3:42 pm

A row of orange utility markers signal that construction is soon to take place, only 200 feet from the nest of a Bald Eagle nest containing a newly hatched chick:

Utility Spotter Flags 20090119

I have spent a frustrating, but educational, couple of days, learning about how poorly various levels of government communicate with each other. For those who don’t know, we have a Bald Eagle nest in our neighborhood, only about 215 feet from the edge of a busy boulevard. They are the first pair known to have established an active nest in Broward County since DDT was abolished in the 1970s. View our Eagle Nest Page for the history of this nest.

I watched for an hour this morning between 9 and 10 AM, but this was the best view of the bird I could obtain:

Bald Eagle 20090121

Florida’s Bald Eagles have made an amazing recovery. There are now over 1200 pairs nesting in the Sunshine State, up from 88 pairs in 1973, and an estimated 417 in all the lower 48 states back in 1963. Population pressures, combined with relentless “reclamation” and development of their natural habitat is now pressuring them to seek nesting sites away from their traditional haunts in the Everglades, swamps  and pine forests. Increasingly, this brings their needs into conflict with ours.   

The local birds successfully raised one chick last season, despite being adjacent to two housing developments and besieged by the noise and hubbub of rush-hour traffic, a nearby construction staging area, and even a police shooting range within earshot (no pun intended). These brave invaders of our urban space lead us to question the conventional knowledge that they need the seclusion of wild places to insulate them from contact with the greatest historical threat to their health and safety: humans.

According to the US Census Bureau, 50% of us live in the suburbs, and 30% in cities, taking up 5% of the total land area of the US. The suburbs are undergoing the greatest rate of expansion.

Wild things, and particularly birds, have three choices as humans invade their historical territory. The meek, the Avoiders,* fade back into their ever-shrinking natural habitats, where paved roads are scarce. As natural areas are fragmented and degraded, these species face the greatest threat of extinction. Think Spotted Owl and Red-cockaded Woodpecker.

The second choice is for species to adapt to those areas that are paved over, with anywhere from 20% to 50% of the land covered by homes, offices, parking lots and roads. These Adapters* choose places on the edge of suburbia, or large city parks or preserves, the last remnants of their familiar habitats. Find the robins, Kestrels, Mourning Doves and Red-tails at the local overgrown cemetery.

Finally, we all know the birds that not only invade, but relish the urban environment, where buses spew fumes and commuting workers’ heels click on the sidewalks. We love these Exploiters*, the pigeons, House Sparrows, grackles, starlings, and in Florida, the Muscovy Ducks, Monk Parakeets, and even White Ibises. For the shut-in city kids, they offer a glimpse of another, freer world. Some of these birds are so well adapted to, and dependent upon, city life that they are rarely found away from civilization.

Our local Bald eagle pair, under population pressure as their natural habitat diminishes, has chosen the second path to success. Whether it was a wise choice is yet to be seen. Others of their kind have been even more adventurous, finding nesting sites on cell phone towers and utility poles. In any event we now face one of the inevitable conflicts that arise when our interests conflict with those of our National Symbol.

These urbanized eagles defy science, a science born deep in Alaskan fjords, Minnesota lakes, and mangrove islands. Credible studies showed how human incursions within a perimeter of 200 meters (660 feet) resulted in a significant risk of nest failure. Although the Bald Eagle has been removed from the Endangered Species List, it continues to be federally protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

At the State level, the Florida Bald Eagle Rule is very similar to the Federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, in recommending the types of activity that should occur near the nest during breeding season. If there is “similar activity” closer than 1 mile from the nest, and the activity will be visible from the nest, additional such activity should take place “no nearer than 660 feet, or as close as existing tolerated activity of similar scope.”  The Pembroke Pines eagles are already tolerating vehicle and pedestrian traffic along the south shoulder of Pines Boulevard. If the planned construction involves mechanized excavation, it will exceed “existing tolerated activity,” and would, if it were more than 330 feet from the excavation, require a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). However, the FWC cannot issue a permit if the disturbance is nearer than 330 feet– it may only advise that the construction not be carried out until the eaglets have left the nest! Therefore, there is no formal involvement of FWC in negotiating and monitoring the work that is carried out, to assure that there is less risk of nest abandonment, or death of the chicks.

It took all of yesterday for the City, after searching its own permit records, to finally find out that the work is to be done by the Broward County Traffic Engineering Division. [ADDENDUM: more recently, the County has advised us that the work is actually being done by a contractor for the Broward County School Board, under a license from the Florida Department of Transportation.] Such work requires a permit from the FWC. Now they know about the problem, and we hope the FWC will be able to do its job and enforce its rules.

This  (still unfolding– see my discussion of the urban “donut hole in Bald Eagle protection) episode is more a reflection of the reality that coordination between the various levels of government is extremely difficult, and requires ongoing efforts and resources. The utilities that were marked, and the planned construction are all within a utility easement. Apparently, the County is not required to seek a permit from either the City or from the State DOT [however, the Broward County School Board did obtain a permit from DOT, although neither were aware of the eagle nest until we brought it to their attention], who share jurisdiction. If there is no permit, there is no “red flag” in the construction process whereby the contractor, who does the work for the responsible agency, is ever informed that there is a FWC-registered eagle nest anywhere in the vicinity. Just who is responsible for the information gap? The State FWC? The State DOT? Broward County? The Contractor? The City?

The answer is either none of the above, or all of them, as that is the way the system works. Now I am very glad that, at least, some local citizens are informed and educated. That is why I “went public” about the existence of the nest in the first place, despite cautions that such information must be kept as a guarded secret. I just did not have confidence in “The System,” because there is no system. The people of Pembroke Pines obviously value their natural places, as evidenced by their many and beautiful preserves and nature centers, so I had confidence in them.

* as Michael McKinney calls them in his essay, Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Conservation, in the October, 2002 issue of BioScience.

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