Arizonans keep watchful eyes on bald eagles nesting near humans

RIO VERDE – Across Arizona, humans are keeping a sharp eye on bald eagle nests that are close to areas with high recreational traffic. As part of a program run by the Arizona Game & Fish Department, these nestwatchers monitor the behaviors of the eagles and make sure their treetop and rock ledge nests are safe.

The Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program began in 1978 as a volunteer organization to monitor breeding bald eagles. Today, the program is so popular people are on waiting lists, and the watchers get paid to do the job.

Wildlife officials say the program and other efforts to protect our national symbol are paying off: There now are eight times as many bald eagle nests as there were in 1978.

“This is a project that I am enjoying a lot, and I want to do it for many years,” said Eduardo Martinez, who has been an Arizona nestwatcher for five years.

Martinez and his wife are watching a pair of eagles nesting about a 10 minute walk into the desert near Box Bar Recreation Area in the Tonto National Forest, near Bartlett Lake.

“I love this place. I’ve been to several places, and several nests all over Arizona,” said Martinez, who comes to Arizona from Mexico yearly to watch the eagles. “And this place, I think, has the most diversity.”

Nestwatchers start in February, keeping an eye on 10 to 15 breeding areas that are in busy recreational areas. In some breeding areas, including sections of the Verde River, areas have been closed so nests aren’t disturbed.

Arizona has close to 90 bald eagle breeding areas, according to Game & Fish. The agency notes on its website that nestwatchers can help identify eagles that are in life threatening situations so biologists can help.

The watchers work 10 days in a row, spending those days and nights near the nests to keep close watch. They spend their time talking, reading and, of course, watching the birds.

“By having the nestwatchers here, we’re able to figure out what might be causing problems and make sure that we’ve got management on the ground, and recreators that understand the proper way to recreate in an area where you might have a bald eagle’s nest just right behind you,” said Kenneth Jacobson, who’s the bald eagle management coordinator with Arizona Game & Fish.

Nestwatchers spend so much time with these birds they start to pick up on personality traits. Martinez said 2019 was a “complicated” year for the bald eagles he watched. Food was scarce, and one of the fledglings died.

“That’s nature,” Martinez said. “But because we put names on them and we were really attached to them, one of them dying was a really sad moment for us.”

Martinez said he’s still debating whether to name any fledglings that hatch this year.

Last year, the breeding season was equivalent to a soap opera at a nesting site near Lake Pleasant – and thanks to a remote camera set up by Game & Fish, the public got to watch.

First, a rival ousted a male and bred with the female, who laid three eggs – all of which were eaten by ravens and ringtail cats. There was hope for the fourth egg, but the mother destroyed it, perhaps because she sensed an abnormality, Game & Fish said.

A breeding pair has returned to Lake Pleasant this year, and they’ve built a new nest high up on a rocky ledge. The first clutch of eggs was lost to predators, likely ravens, but Arizona Game & Fish said there’s still time for another clutch.

Jacobson said overall the bald eagle population in the state continues to climb.

“Back in 1978, when bald eagles were listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act, we only knew of 11 breeding areas in the state,” Jacobson said. “Now, in 2020, we’ve got 90 breeding territories across the state. There’s been a significant growth in the population.”

Last year, Game & Fish said 71 eagle eggs hatched, down from 87 in 2018.

The department expects this year’s eggs to hatch about the end of March and early April, and it will tag the fledglings. In three to four years, the birds will be ready for their own breeding season.

Game & Fish has a 24/7 live stream of the bald eagle nest at Lake Pleasant, but it’s not as close as last year’s camera because of the nest’s location.

Politics Reporter, Phoenix