Since 1953 David has been censusing bald eagle and other raptor nests. This started earlier when he was introduced into practicing falconry, then banding gulls and many raptors, and this was followed by him accompanying the Provincial Museum raptor specialist Frank Beebe on censusing the peregrines of the Queen Charlotte Islands – now Haida Quay. By the time David finished his commercial pilots rating, he realized he wanted more, to be a flying biologist. He then entered university for 7 years.
For his thesis he was fortunate to be able to undertake a wide-ranging study of bald eagles along the coast of BC with many side censuses of Washington and Alaska coastal shorelines. Following eagle distribution studies focusing on the Gulf and San Juan Island, Barkley Sound and the Great Bear Rain Forest during the 1960’s, he got back into serious studies of eagle distribution and productivity in the 1990’s. These studies focused on understanding how to keep our eagles nesting among the throngs of humans in the regions of greatest human – eagle conflict, the Lower Fraser Valley. Here the challenge was that eagles needed huge nesting trees to support their nests. Developers wanted land for houses, businesses and industrial complexes and trees were in the way.
The early government concerns were feeding the needs of developers. Eagles be damned. After 50 years of watching eagle nests be destroyed, even when the Wildlife Act included clauses to protect eagles and their nests, it seemed a more aggressive stand was necessary. By 2006 the Hancock Wildlife Foundation had established live streaming CAMS on the Web to promote the values of eagle education and conservation through following the intimate lives of eagles. This gave great impetus to collecting data on eagle nest distribution – and the need to protect this fast-disappearing resource. As eagles moved into towns to regain access to their waterways, development was removing the nest trees.
Simultaneously, another government sponsored project was gaining momentum to support defining where eagles nests were located. This was called WiTS, the Wild Tree Stewardship Program. They started counting eagle nests on the northern end of Vancouver Island. By the time they were thinking of moving into the Fraser Valley, the HWF was able to contribute 168 nests to their data base. But working the Vancouver Island took precedence. The HWF alone kept expanding the Lower Fraser Valley survey and today we have basically recorded 1000 nests. Pushing about 300 of these are alternative nests, today either fallen or blown down and a few of these being backup nests to a nest in a more preferred tree.
By about 2010, we had worked with the Wildlife Authorities so we both agreed that they needed to halt the steady decline of our big trees and the eagle nests they supported. Could we collectively change the developer’s attitude – development at any cost! Or could we demand mitigation if a nest tree was to be removed. It was a slow but deliberate move to add value to such a simple situation. British Columbia already used the promotional term protect Super Natural British Columbia – what was a more logical out? Protect one of the most loved and iconic creatures, one who had, once they were no longer shot for a bounty, invaded our urban neighborhoods.
The next step was for the government to allow us to further experiment with building alternative nests. Would the eagle use them? We had already shown we could modify red-tail hawk nests to accommodate a bald eagle nest. Next, we started to show we could build an acceptable new nest – given a few conditions. These conditions followed from my earlier studies that showed that eagles did not like their nests being invaded. This applied to bird banders or photographers entering nests. I then felt we should not be seen building an eagles nest. Once this condition was accepted by Wildlife Authorities, all our nests, built while the eagles were away on migration, were instantly occupied on the eagle’s return.
Then the path was simple. If you needed to remove an eagles nest, it was expected you had to replace that nest with another nest in the eagle’s nesting territory. Voila. Once this criteria was followed, we have had 100% success in keeping the eagles nesting even though we had constructed a new nest in their territory. A Mitigation Plan not just allowed ways to reduce disturbance to the nesting eagles, but it was capable of effectively moving an active eagle nest to a new nearby location. And most importantly, the eagles accepted the move.
Conservation and Mitigation of habitat has taken on a new practical meaning. And the most incredible feature of this is that most developers have welcomed this option. They, and their families, have said this single action has given them more hope to keeping British Columbia both Super and Natural. Yes.
So today the key to keeping eagle and other raptor species habitat is relatively straight forward. We plan how to reinvest in keeping or improving the species needed habitat components – and where possible improve the region for even more species. We can build nests, improve adjacent regions to accommodate many other species and set limits where necessary on destructive human activities.
Part of this effort has been the cost of gathering data on where eagle nests and what habitats are most vulnerable and in need of protection. If an eagle nest is to be removed, it is now possible to demand an alternative nest be built. One of the big challenges in a built-up area like the lower mainland is to understand the influence of adjacent pairs of bald eagles on each other’s territory. Can a new nest be moved to the east 50 m, or will that relocation upset the next eagle pair? Some of this data is very time consuming to gather and this is where a concerned citizenry, I prefer to call our Citizen Scientists, get to shine. They soon learn to understand what is important to keeping eagles and other key species nesting happily. The essence of this is knowing what we presently have. Where are there eagles, peregrines, ospreys, other key species including great blue herons now nesting? This is what our Monitoring is all about. Finding these nests as the basis of their preservation – or relocation.
Would you like to support our raptors or herons? Do you have a few hours a month to check up on your local wildlife? Can you fill in a simple form? Take a photo or gps reading of a site? If you might get pleasure and satisfaction from helping save one of these wonderful creatures, you passed the first test of being a Monitor. Call me!