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Surrey Reserve Bald Eagle Nest: the Background

Dawson & Sawyer:  Sponsor of Surrey Reserve CAMS

Dawson & Sawyer were the second developers who approached me (David Hancock) wanting advice on how to develop the south Surrey region that contained an active bald eagle nest (Surrey Reserve Nest = SR).  Before 2010 a developer was advised to contact me about a plan to develop about 10 acres around a bald eagle nest I had been following for over 20 years.  My proposal to dedicate a small area for about 100 fine trees, including 5 very substantial 120-foot-tall Black Cottonwoods, was apparently rejected by the developer.  I heard nothing more – and no development on this specific site was happening though many nearby subdivisions were growing houses – ad-nauseam – with no trees in sight!

Then 4 years later I get a call from Sam Hooge of Dawson & Sawyer, a condo/small home developer.  “Was my earlier Mitigation Plan given to a previous developer still valid?”  he asked.  We met, reviewed the site with its now much reduced neighboring forest replaced by houses.

I of course am asked “To Speak for Eagles.”  The nest was still in-situ though I had now seen it seated in about 4 different nearby trees, several now already chopped down.  We plotted out a protected small clump of forest that I felt would offer some minimal protection to nesting eagles for the future and a plan developed.

The Developer agreed to offer this forest clump as a “Bald Eagle Reserve” – the first such trade off in the City of Surrey – even the lower mainland of British Columbia.  The Developer and the City negotiated some slight changes in the density or height of a few of the buildings to give him some greater financial return for giving up the space for the Bald Eagle Reserve.  I even went before the City Council to support this re-zoning change.  What I wanted on behalf of the eagles was a continuing patch of forest, so nicely placed beside the very productive Semiahmoo Bay eagle fishing habitat, a nesting territory that might support eagles well after the efforts of construction had passed and the area could again quietly support nesting eagles.

The City Council Considers the Plan

The City public meeting was tense. The Mayor referenced about 16 opposing letters – all against the increased density of a few of the houses.  After 13 speakers also opposing the development, all by people who lived in the adjacent sub-division that had been built where EVERY SINGLE tree had already been removed, I stood to give my perspective of what I thought the “Eagles would be seeking as a very minimal right of existence.”

My opening question to the Mayor and Council was: “Before I give my presentation can I ask if the Mayor and Council will terminate all future development in the City?”  Blank stares turned to frowns then followed by scowls.  I had to crack a smile before I was about to be ejected from the elegant Chambers.  “I’ll take that as a no!” I said.  “So my alternative is to try and suggest a slight alteration in the normal planning procedures that allows the City of Surrey, in our Super Natural British Columbia, to save a small section of marvelous forest, a clump of trees that has supported an eagles nest for over 20 years that I knew of, a secure home adjacent to some of the most productive bald eagle habitat in North America, and to give back to the Developer a small bit of increased density in return.”  I continued “This small bit of forest will be a neighborhood treasure for passing and breeding migrating birds, host many little mammals, offer security, particularly with the row of slightly higher houses, from winds that might damage the few remaining trees.”  This small patch of trees could be home of a pair of nesting bald eagles for eternity

At the end of the evening one of the key proponents who had organized the opposition to the increased density came to me and said – “I had totally changed her mind, she had not understood the ‘gain of the Reserve’ and she supported my approach.”  The Council passed the change in zoning and the City of Surrey got its first Bald Eagle Reserve, the eagles got some little patch of woodland for the future and Dawson & Sawyer got their slightly richer development – and I believe the neighborhood is also a little richer.  I hope this is a win win win win win situation.

But that was only the beginning of this project, the challenges and and and and…..

The Weather Gets Involved

About 8 days after the Mayor and Council approved the Reserve a storm blew the eagle’s nest out of the tree. This was the third time I had seen a nest blow off this same branch.  But nobody noticed this loss until another near full-sized eagle nest was noted about 80 m to the south. And this nest was not on the Reserve.  It was on another soon-to-be-developed subdivision.  Oh dear.  We had a Bald Eagle Reserve with no eagle nest and an eagle nest with no where to reside!  This nest was in a tree already approved to be cut down for the next development.  Sometimes coincidences work in your favor.  It turned out Dawson & Sawyer had some relationship to this land on which the new nest was located but were not going to be the final developers of the houses.  But the active eagle’s nest was protected by the BC Wildlife Act.

At his point in January, the spring of 2017, the eagles were seriously finishing their nest.  Yet the development around the adjacent but approved Bald Eagle Reserve had not started, the nearby clearing had not happened and the adjacent 3 story buildings had started construction. The main challenge was that the land around the Reserve had not started its construction and the disturbance to the eagles that this would cause.  I came in with suggestions about how wonderful it would be to let the eagles not just finish nesting during that 2017 season – a legal Wildlife Act requirement – but that would mean we would be building a new nest structure in the Reserve area at the end of the 2017 season when the eagles had departed on migration.  But it was apparent from conversations with the Developers that their main construction efforts, the work on the higher roofs beside the ‘about to be built’ Modified Eagle Nest on the Reserve, would be at its peak when the eagles came home after the fall salmon runs in the winter of 2017-2018 – probably disrupting the eagles from re-establishing our new nest

Another plan emerged.  Could the eagles stay breeding at their new nest for two years to allow the houses about to be built beside the Reserve to be finished and if this was possible could they hold off clearing of the new building site, where the new nest was now situated, for a second season?  This would be best for the eagles but require the builders to hold off development of the second site for a second year.  Again, Dawson & Sawyer stepped in and said “Yes, lets do it, it’s best for the eagles!”  No point in having an Eagle Reserve with no eagles!  So, the houses got to be finished beside the Reserve and the clearing of the site to the south housing the new eagle’s nest was left to be productive for a second year – and this July they fledged their young.  Then on 16th August I was convinced that the adults had departed and I gave the FLNR wildlife officials notice the eagles had left the nesting site on migration. The FLNR officials then gave the developer permission to cut down the now deserted eagle nest and we then initiated building the Modified Tree in the Reserve.

Preparing the New Nest

Dawson & Sawyer again came forward – they had their arborist, Trevor Smith, assist Myles construct the new nest frame in an appropriate crotch about 90 feet up the best remaining tree.  Just previous Dawson & Sawyer had said they would pay Hancock Wildlife Foundation to install two CAMS and they would underwrite the cost of this and the support of the CAMS over time.  I got in the CAMS, Ken assembled and tested them and then on August 28 Myles and Trevor built the nest and mounted the first CAM in the nest tree. This was a difficult construction job – and most difficult CAM installation Myles had encountered.  To go back a step – between establishing the Reserve around an existing nest, the one that blew down, then finding out that when the Dawson & Sawyer Arborist had assessed the original nest tree as “rotted and unsafe” this tree was cut down.  Ok – danger takes precedence.  Then came the next bad news.

The next two big trees I selected for modification were also evaluated as “too dangerous” and removed before I even got to discuss them.  Our Reserve was getting a bit smaller.  On top of this our whole southern BC Region is suffering climate change and the resultant disease in our Western Red Cedars and about a dozen of these trees had died in the two years since the Reserve was established.  However, as a backup Dawson & Sawyer have already planted a number of fast-growing Giant Redwoods – for future eagle nests – in about 60 years.  Today we had few remaining tree options still standing, particularly ones that would support an artificial nest at least 80 feet up. Well we had one fine big tree but it did not offer the best “crotch options” for holding the support branches – or hanging the CAMS from.  On August 28th. , suspended from ropes for more than 8 hours Myles and Trevor got the necessary support branches in place and were able to get one CAM installed in the nest tree.  They could see a fine location for the second CAM but in the adjacent tree 35 feet to the southwest.  That CAM was installed a week later, September 4.  Not all projects go as planned.  Now I don’t want you to think that I abandoned the project – I was supervising heavily from the ground.  When the ‘man-lift’ could not access the base of this tree it meant I was not going up to assist the actual nest construction that I thoroughly enjoy.  At 80 I don’t climb trees any more!

And Now We Wait for the Eagles

So, the nest frame exists. The two CAMS will be connected to the WEB next week.  Now we wait to see if both adults have survived the migration and like our efforts.

NOW an update:  October 3:  I was at the site checking the gps reading on the nest tree today and I got scolded by an adult red-tailed hawk calling from above the nest. Within a few seconds this bird was responded to by an adult female bald eagle, screaming a territorial call from a tree 80 feet to the southwest.  Certainly, some bird is already reviewing the territory.  Within a month we should know if a pair takes up residence.  It looks like a good start.

David Hancock
October 4, 2018