Dozens of bald eagles are nestled in county


Published: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 11:13 p.m.
It takes an eagle's-eye view to spot bald eagle nests.
Steve Nesbitt soared the Gainesville skies last week in a Cessna 172 as part of a statewide count of those nests. The state fish and wildlife biologist has a keen eye honed through 33 years of such work, but now has help from global positioning satellites.
The technology led the plane to a forest near Prairie View Elementary, in southeast Gainesville, which has contained a nest every year since he started looking. Sure enough, a white-headed eagle was seen perching on a towering pine before the plane buzzed closer and the bird popped into its nest - probably to guard the little ones.
The nest is one of nearly 40 sites in Alachua County containing a pair of eagles and their hatchlings, the 10th highest count of any county in Florida.
Nesbitt said the eagle has recovered from a low of 88 nests statewide but may now have reached a peak, as shown by the fact that exactly 1,133 nests were counted in three of the past four years.
"When I tell people that, they say 'Yeah, right.' But that's what it comes out to," he said.
Experts say the eagle's recovery is a model for wildlife protection efforts.
When America adopted the eagle as its national symbol in 1782, there were as many as 100,000 nesting pairs in the country. But because of development and the pesticide DDT, just 417 pairs could be found in the continental United States outside Alaska by the 1960s.
In the early 1970s, the federal government banned DDT and listed the bald eagle as an endangered species. By the late 1990s, the eagle's recovery prompted the Clinton administration to propose removing it from the list of threatened species. That action has been delayed while plans are formulated about what to do next.
Today there are about 7,500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.
"The bald eagle is an amazing success story," said John Kostyack, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C.
He attributes that success in part to the Endangered Species Act, which is now under attack in Congress, for its protection of eagle habitat. Private developers also played a large part in aiding the recovery, he said.
"People generally want eagles around," he said.
About 69 percent of nests are on private property, Nesbitt said. The eagle can live close to people, he said, as long as there's a steady food source. That means Gainesville residents who live near water bodies with plenty of fish can find eagles nesting in their yards.
"It's not mutually exclusive," he said. "It's not us or them."
People are often surprised to see eagles flying around the urban parts of Gainesville, said Howard Adams, president of the Alachua Audubon Society. But bird-watchers are more likely to spot the eagle on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and near Lake Wallaby, Newnan's Lake and Lake Alice, he said.
"Any large, open water body is probably going to have eagles around," he said.
Nesbitt said eagles pair for life, establishing nesting territories where they return each year. After eagles die, their offspring or other eagles often come and take the territory for their own.
There were concerns that hurricanes during the past two years would hurt the population, but Nesbitt said the numbers show eagles apparently rebuilt nests after the storms.
He said he's reassured when he sees the same nests each year, like the one near Prairie View.
"After you see eagles in the same place year after year, it's hard not to become attached," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@ gvillesun.com.

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