Alaska eaglets California-bound

Posted: Monday, December 01, 2003

Scaling a 100-foot Sitka spruce and then perching at the edge of an eagle's nest, Jim Spickler's job is only half done.

He speaks to the 8-week-old raptors in the nest, just long enough to coax them into a padded nylon bag and make the descent.

For the past two summers, Spickler has been on a recruiting drive that could return bald eagles to the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California. The native population on the islands was wiped out by the pesticide DDT.

"It's really surprising how easy it is to get these guys into the bag," said Spickler. "Usually what I say to them, I try to explain how they are going to have a vacation in sunny California."

Spickler's work is part of a five-year study that began in 2002 to determine whether bald eagles could again breed offspring on the islands.

With the help of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers who scout the eagle nests along the coast of Icy Strait and Lynn Canal, about 25 miles west of Juneau, Spickler plucks juvenile eagles from their nests to be relocated to California.

Spickler has taken seven eagles from their Southeast Alaska nests in each of the last two years. The eagles eventually are released on the northern Channel Islands, about 75 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, by the Arcata, Calif.-based Institute for Wildlife Studies, which is leading the repopulation study.

"They seem to do fine down here," said Peter Sharpe, wildlife biologist with the institute. "It's warmer (and) they've got a nice year-round food supply on the island."

Alaska has an estimated 50,000 bald eagles, half of them in Southeast Alaska, said Mike Jacobson, an eagle management specialist in Alaska with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"This is the center of their population," Jacobson said from his Juneau field office.

In the early 1980s-1990s, Alaska bald eagles were being relocated to Lower 48 states much more frequently, Jacobson said. But those requests have dropped off as the species has rebounded.

The institute also has been trying to repopulate Catalina Island since 1980, Sharpe said. They've taken eagles from northern California, Washington and British Columbia for the effort.

But so far, the breeding pairs on Catalina Island haven't been able to produce eggs that could withstand enough weight to be incubated by their parents.

The effects of DDT - which permeates the skin tissue of prey such as fish and marine mammals - cause the egg shells to weaken.

"They are unable to hatch their own eggs because of the pollution that still exists around here," Sharpe said.

So, workers have removed eggs from the nests and taken them to the San Francisco Zoo to be incubated, Sharpe said. They put fake eggs in the nest for the adult eagles to nurture.

Efforts on Santa Cruz Island will tell researchers whether there is less pollution on the rest of the northern Channel Islands, Sharpe said.

Funding for the experiment comes from a $140 million settlement reached in 2000 with Montrose Chemical Corp., for decades of dumping DDT and other chemicals into San Pedro Channel.

About 1,800 metric tons of DDT and PCBs had been dumped into the channel since the 1940s, and the most recent surveys show about 100 metric tons remain in ocean sediment, said Greg Baker, program manager for the Montrose Restoration Program.

The area - which is about 17 square miles - is a Superfund clean-up site and the settlement is administered by six state and federal agencies, Baker said.

Efforts to study eagle repopulation efforts at Santa Cruz Island are expected to cost about $4 million, Baker said.

In the first two years of the study, 22 eagles have been released on Santa Cruz and nearby Santa Rosa Island, and 17 have survived, Sharpe said. The group has gathered 14 eagles from Alaska to be used in the study, he said.

Alaska birds are used when the San Francisco Zoo is unable to provide enough juveniles for the project, he said.

Spickler spent about a week in Alaska during the summer visiting eagle nests to find juveniles who are just the right age for transplant.

Once he finds a nest, he uses a crossbow and arrow - also known as a bolt - to thread fishing line over high branches in the tree. In this way, he's able to drape his climbing ropes over the branches and anchor them below to allow him to get to the nests.

Once in the nests - generally a six-foot-square area strong enough to support his 160 pounds - he talks to the juvenile eagles to calm them down.

The parents are usually nearby and very upset, but Spickler has never been attacked by the raptors. It's as much a surprise to him as anyone, he said.

"For such a large bird, vary capable of doing harm with their talons and beaks, they are very docile," Spickler said.

The whole encounter typically takes 5 to 10 minutes, he said.

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