Arizona Bald Eagles: AZGFD biologist tag a local pair of nestlings

By TARA ALATORRE

One of the bald eagle nestlings along the Lower Verde River that was fitted with an identification band last on April 17, by AZGFD. Photos by Tara Alatorre/Staff
One of the bald eagle nestlings along the Lower Verde River that was fitted with an identification band last on April 17, by AZGFD.
Photos by Tara Alatorre/Staff

TONTO NATIONAL FOREST – Climbing a giant cottonwood tree near the Lower Verde River with a small crowd watching as you avoid a bee hive, while ascending to a bald eagle nest containing two eaglets is not your typical Friday morning job duty

Pictured left to right: Nest watchers, Leticia and Eduardo Martinez, holding the nestling they have been watching non-stop for months.
Pictured left to right: Nest watchers, Leticia and Eduardo Martinez, holding the nestling they have been watching non-stop for months.

However, it’s all in a day’s work for Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Raptor Management Coordinator Kenneth “Tuk” Jacobson during the bald eagle nesting season, and that is exactly what he was doing on April 17.

Each year the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) attempts to place metal identification bands on as many nestlings as possible, which is part of its bald eagle conservation program.

Fragments of a bald eagle shell that Tuk retrieved from the nest.
Fragments of a bald eagle shell that Tuk retrieved from the nest.

The program along with the cooperation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services successfully recovered Arizona’s population of bald eagles through its conservation efforts, and in 2010 it was officially removed from the Endangered Species List, according to AZGFD.

However, AZGFD still manages the program, implementing temporary recreational closures during breeding season, partnering with nest watchers and placing identifying bands on the nestlings.

The band has a unique identification number that will help biologists track the eagle once they leave the nest, and it helps AZGFD better understand the local migration patterns, breeding habits and nesting behavior.

Using rappelling equipment Tuk climbs the tree to the nest that is about 40-feet-high in an old cottonwood tree.
Using rappelling equipment Tuk climbs the tree to the nest that is about 40-feet-high in an old cottonwood tree.

Currently Arizona’s eagles are thriving, but in the 1970s the population nearly disappeared.  Now, there are over 80 active breeding sites across the state thanks to AZGFD’s bald eagle program.

“We are experiencing payoff from decades of conservation efforts,” AZGFD Bald Eagle Field Projects Coordinator Kyle McCarty said. “So not too long ago they were endangered and there was a nationwide effort to recover them…they have come back a long way from those declines and we’re still going.”

Pictured: The identification band and tools used to fit it on the nestlings ankle.
Pictured: The identification band and tools used to fit it on the nestlings ankle.

AZGFD’s conservation efforts means that these five-week-old baby bald eaglets are just one of 87 breeding areas that biologists identified this year.

As Tuk climbs into the humongous nest, he covers each nestlings’ eyes and talons with a leather helmet and booties, then he safely lowers them to the ground – all while a dozen people consisting of AZGFD biologists, conservationists, nest watchers and local media keenly watch.

Once the nestlings are on the ground the nest watchers, Eduardo and Leticia Martinez, carefully hold the eaglets while they are given a health checkup by biologists, who gather data about their weight, height, beak size and talon size.

Kyle McCarty cools off a nestling with a spray bottle before it is returned to its nest along the Lower Verde River, east of Scottsdale in the Tonto National Forest.
Kyle McCarty cools off a nestling with a spray bottle before it is returned to its nest along the Lower Verde River, east of Scottsdale in the Tonto National Forest.

The nest watchers are a married couple that traveled from Vera Cruz, Mexico and have been camping for months watching the nest site from sunrise to sunset as part of the Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program. They typically spend from February to July camping around Arizona as nest watchers.

“You see them growing, you see when their first feathers come out, it’s amazing,” Eduardo said.  “I love it.”

They have been active in the program for four years, and today is the first time they will get to hold one of their “babies” while the bands are fitted onto their ankles.

“It’s important to me because I am a wildlife biologist and conservationist and I know raptors are very important for the environment, especially top predators like the eagles,” Eduardo said, while explaining why he is so dedicated to the nest watcher program. “Protecting them and the nest and helping maintain a stable population protects the environment.”

While the eagles get banded, Tuk searches the nest for any harmful material like fishing line or pests and tries to retrieve egg shell fragments for analysis.

Each eagle appeared in good health and it was determined that both nestlings were males based on the size of their talons and beak. The babies weighed about five pounds and were already wielding adult-sized, lethal talons.

Eduardo, who specializes in raptors, noted that the bald eagle parents at this site seemed to be struggling slightly for food because the pair seemed to both leave the nest for longer periods than what he has observed in the past.

McCarty explained that this nesting pair, which has been breeding at the site for five years, might be having some difficulty fishing due to the unusually high flow of the Verde River caused from an extremely wet winter. He anticipates the young pair will survive, especially as the water lever recedes to its lower summer flows and hunting becomes easier for the parents.

“We have seen failures in areas we typically don’t see this year,” McCarty said, mentioning the Lake Pleasant pair that unsuccessfully laid four eggs. “Still overall, we’re looking good, since this population is growing, we can handle a few more failures it’s not going to impact the trend which is still positive.”

Both nestlings did have a fish in their crop, which is pouch used to temporarily store food, and is a good healthy sign for the nestlings. 

During the three-hour banding process the adult bald eagles were not seen anywhere near the nest until the group left area and an eagle was spotted perched in a nearby tree holding a fish in its beak.

In a couple of months, the nestlings will take their first flight, and if all goes well, one day Tuk will end up in their nest again so he can band their offspring just like today.

Tuk from AZGFD talks about recovering the bald eagle species in Arizona.

Tuk lowering himself down from a bald eagle nest that is high up in a Cottonwood tree along the Verde River on April 17.