Pictured: One of two young bald eagles that are nesting above Lake Pleasant and were fitted for leg bands that will help wildlife specialists monitor and identify the eagles forever.

Photos courtesy of Tara Alatorre/Staff
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Lake Pleasant's bald eagles a rare, close-up look

4/4/18

Tara Alatorre
Staff
LAKE PLEASANT – The bald eagles circling overhead tell us that we have arrived at our destination. In the middle of nowhere on a high, craggy lake cliffside, up a feral donkey trail through a thorny obstacle course, biologists and conservationists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department lead a small group to an unassuming nesting location where a pair of bald eaglets sit perched on a warm spring day.

The bald eagles may only be about six weeks old, but they have already gained quite a bit of attention as the small group of about 20 educators, media members, nest watchers and biologists ascend up the steep trail to the nesting area, and become fixated on the fluffy  juvenile raptors.

 Go-Pros, zoom lenses, high powered binoculars, cell phones, every type of media device imaginable becomes engrossed on a nest that sits about 50-feet below us. The sound of cameras firing echoes in the canyons of Lake Pleasant and the football-sized eaglets are the stars of the show here today.

As part of the AZGFD’s bald eagle conservation program the department bands as many nestlings as possible and today these eaglets will be banded with a unique permanent identifier and get a health checkup.

“The band is kind of like a bracelet, it has a number and a letter it will give us a lot of information,” said Kyle McCarry, a biologist with the AZGFD that participated in the nestling banding on March 28. “We use a blue color band for our birds, so we know it is an Arizona bird.”

In the late 1970’s bald eagles nearly disappeared in Arizona and they were listed as an endangered species. Since 1991 AZGFD has been leading the protective management program in the Southwest with cooperation from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

“The most important thing we do is to give these eagles a chance to success,” McCarry said. “It’s very exciting to be a part of this…back in the 1970’s we only had about three breeding pairs and it has grown to 85 breeding areas.”

In 2010 the bald eagles in Arizona were removed from the Endangered Species List, but AZGFD continues the Bald Eagle Management Program, by implementing recreation closures near the 85 nesting areas during breeding season, deploying nest watchers, and banding all the nestlings where possible.

“Our population is growing, there are more bald eagles here than we ever have had,” said McCarry as the AZGFD crew prepares the equipment to rappel into the eagle nest, which is no longer occupied by the adult eagles who now circle far above us.

An AZGFD biologist lowers himself into the nest swiftly places booties over the eaglets’ talons and a hood over their heads then places them into a sack.  He then surveys the nest looking for any odd or dangerous objects such as fishing line or plastic.

He cautiously hoists the precious sack on his back and gets lifted back to the top of the cliff and reveals two baby eaglets.  With the hoods placed over their heads the nestlings remain very calm.

“Raptors are such visual creatures that when you take that away from them, their vision they think it is bedtime,” explains the biologist who will be banding this eaglet and taking its measurements to determine the raptor’s sex. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this one starts drooling on you.”

The biologist takes out a blue metal band with the identification A38 engraved in it, this eagle will now be forever identified as A38.  Through this band AZGFD can determine where the eagle was born, how old it is, its sex and can track where it nests once it matures.

“The band is sized for an adult and we select this specific age because they are close to their adult size and they aren’t really going to be growing anymore, they will just be getting more feathers in,” the biologists said.

The booties are removed and the razor-sharp talons of A38 are revealed, which are basically the size of a full-grown bald eagle even though this eaglet can’t even fly yet.
Female raptors tend to be slightly larger than males, so by taking a leg measurement AZGFD can determine the eaglets sex. The biologist gently stretches out the its leg exposing its fluffy down feathers, which reminds you again that this is a vulnerable nestling regardless of its impressive talon and beak size.

“This leg is 13.5 millimeters, so it is likely a girl!” he says smiling, looking over at the other biologist who is measuring the other eaglet nearby, which is a boy.

Despite some fishing line that was found in the nest, both eaglets appeared healthy and were developing normally.  A38 and her brother won’t try to leave the nest for another six weeks, and their signature white plumage on their heads won’t grow in until they are about 5 years old.

Before returning the eaglets back to their nest the biologists allow the group to admire the majestic animals up close.  If all goes well, one day these biologists will band A38's nestlings as the bald eagle continues to recover its territory in Arizona.

“You never get tired of being out here,” said McCarry. “Being with the birds it is one of my favorite parts of the job.”