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Eagle watchers fret over birds' fate

Eagles are thriving here, but if they are removed from the endangered species list, as expected, it will lessen their protections.

Published March 6, 2007


A prolific pair of bald eagles had raised two or three eaglets each year in a cell tower near State Road 590 and McMullen- Booth Road in Clearwater. But when a storm ripped the nest out in the summer of 2004, they left.

The eagles found refuge in a cell tower off Main Street, Safety Harbor, and raised chicks there for two nesting seasons, about October to May.

When the pair returned last summer, the eagles flew back and forth between the two sites. But at the SR 590 site, crews were building a Walgreens pharmacy and working on the road.

In October, they disappeared. It led Audubon of Florida EagleWatch volunteer Joe Zarolinski to wonder if it was an ominous sign for Florida's bald eagle population, the largest in the country outside Alaska. Had the construction led them to find a different nesting site, or thwarted their mating efforts altogether?

Despite Florida's ever-diminishing habitat, the bald eagles of North Pinellas are doing more than their part to ensure the survival of their species. They are raising another bumper crop of eaglets in the 11 known nests from Largo to Tarpon Springs.

But the federal government is expected to delist America's national symbol from the endangered species list in June, lessening the bird's environmental protections. And the volunteers who watch over North Pinellas' now-thriving eagle population worry the bird's progress could easily be reversed.

The Jacksonville office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the office that covers North Pinellas, has already allowed construction closer to nesting bald eagles in anticipation of the delisting, which was first initiated eight years ago.

Zarolinski believes he found his two nest eagles at a new location in late October, south of Safety Harbor. He thinks it's the same two birds that are now nesting just off the Clearwater Christian College campus on Cooper's Point with three fuzzy chicks, about 3 to 4 weeks old.

Last week, one of the adults was fishing in Cooper's Bayou, while the other was in the nest with the chicks. The smallest chick, a light gray, alternated between waddling from side to side and looking sleepy.

Clearwater Christian College students, teachers and staff stopped to watch the eaglets for a few seconds through Zarolinski's scope.

"They're at the very edge of the nest right now - oh, he's yawning! " said Joanne McHugh, the college's director of custodial services, watching the chicks. "They are beautiful. It's so exciting to see that."

* * *

Due north in East Lake, another pair of eagles have raised two or three eaglets for years in a pine tree in the Grey Oaks subdivision. The former landowner, the late developer Roy E. Shaffer Jr., dubbed the pair "Roy and Royola." The eagles are raising two chicks this year. And they are doing it despite seven large homes that are under construction across the street.

The pair seem to have a high tolerance for disturbance.

The new voluntary Bald Eagle Management Guidelines expected to take effect after the bird loses its endangered status aim to ensure that eagles are not disturbed, which would violate the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Before now, protection guidelines set buffer zones allowing activities strictly based on distance from the nest.

But the new guidelines are more complicated. Mitigating factors could allow activities much closer to nests.

The guidelines attempt to take into account the particular conditions of a site, like trees shielding an activity from the eagle's view and the tolerance to disturbance that the pair of eagles, such as Roy and Royola, has previously shown.

Such individualized guidelines concern Joan Brigham, who has led the North Pinellas EagleWatchers for years. She warns against counting on a pair's tolerance to continue from year to year. Though bald eagles mate for life, when their mate dies, they quickly find another.

"The new mate may be much more sensitive to disturbance than the old mate," she said.

She has little faith that the proposed guidelines will do much to ensure the bald eagle's continued success.

"If they are taking away the protections they had under the Endangered Species Act, they needed to give them additional protections under the management guidelines," she said. "And they did not."

Fast Facts:


Bald eagles in the Sunshine State

- Florida has the largest population of bald eagles in the country, outside Alaska.

- There are 11 known bald eagle nests from Largo to Tarpon Springs.


[Last modified March 5, 2007, 23:33:24]

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