Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More on the St. Elizabeth's Bald Eagle Nest

Regular readers may remember a story I linked a few weeks back about DC's only Bald Eagle nest, which is located on a property slated to become the new DHS headquarters. That story, reported in the LA Times, discussed concerns that one element of the project – a new entrance road – may cause the eagles to abandon the site. At the time I wondered, and one commenter asked, why the story did not seem to get coverage in the DC press. The Post has now covered the story with some more information on the site (including a map) and decision process.

Officials from the National Park Service and DC Fisheries and Wildlife seem the most concerned about possible harm from the road construction project. Eagles that would choose to settle in such an urban location obviously have some tolerance for disturbance. The question is how much is too much.

"The assumption is that there's already so much going on that a little more won't hurt. And I don't think that we can make that assumption," said Bryan King, head of fisheries and wildlife for the D.C. Department of the Environment. "It's a definite possibility" that the eagles will abandon the nest, King said.
"You get the sense, yeah, these guys know what they're doing," said Stephen Syphax, chief of the resource management division at National Capital Parks East, a group of parks on the city's east side. On one recent morning, he was in a muggy, overgrown ravine, peering with binoculars through the tree canopy, looking for the nest. Finally, Syphax gave up: it was too well hidden to be seen from the ground. "I've lost this guy. But good for the eagles."

Syphax said the planned road would not require removal of the tree with the nest. But, he said, it could take away other trees that the birds use when they are eating, looking for food or loafing. That could drive them out, he said.
According to the DHS, an environmental impact statement was completed before the project was approved.
A DHS spokesman said the road was purposefully laid out a few hundred yards from the birds' nest. The plan for the road was approved this year, after an environmental impact statement determined that there would be a "negligible increase in noise" around the nest.

Craig Koppie, a Fish and Wildlife scientist who is a preeminent authority on Washington area eagles, said he agreed. Eagles might roam widely from their nests, but they return each December to begin the breeding season. They normally use the same nest for seven or eight years before building another nearby.

"I actually don't see [the road] as being a problem," Koppie said. "Clearly, the birds have seen the human infrastructure that's in place," he said, and they don't mind it enough to leave.
The fact that an EIS has been completed is somewhat reassuring. Eagles near the Wilson Bridge remained at that site through years of construction activity as a new bridge was built, so it may well be possible for the eagles at the St. Elizabeth's site to remain there as well. Still, building a road so close to a nest site is a definite risk, one that I hope will not end badly. One question that I did not see addressed in the article was why the DHS could not renovate an existing entrance to meet their needs instead of building a new one. I think that ought to be the preferred alternative in a case such as this.

Note: The image at the top is a photo I took on 2/10/06 of a pair of Bald Eagles at Hains Point in DC. I do not whether it is the same pair that nests at St. Elizabeth's, but it may be since eagles can cover large territories and the nesting season was just beginning.