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Bald eagle population soars on Whidbey

For some people, eagles are the face of America, second only to Olde Glory. For others, the birds are scavengers, comparable to vultures that sit and wait to prey on lesser creatures.

Cathie Harrison of Admirals Cove was told by a neighbor of the neighborhood peacock escaping an eagle literally by the feathers of its tail last Thursday evening.

“I saw the eagle take off with probably one-third of the peacock’s tail feathers,” she said. “The eagles have become very brazen.”

In the topped trees around the area, eagles perch and scope out their next meal. With limited cover on the ground, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Three weeks ago another of Harrison’s neighbors watched as a feral cat nearly became lunch.

“It’s like a smorgasbord,” she said.

After a four-decade push to beef up the number of American bald eagles, last Thursday, the same day the Admirals Cove peacock almost met its maker, the revered and sometimes maligned bird was removed from the Endangered Species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The de-listing, however, does not change the state’s Bald Eagle Protection Act, which was passed in 1984.

The Bald Eagle Protection Act, the state law, focuses on protection of nesting and roosting habitat. The law requires the establishment of rules defining buffer zones around bald eagle nest and roost sites. The law states that the rules shall take into account the need for variation of the extent of the zone from case to case.

In 1986, the Bald Eagle Protection Rules were established by the Washington State Wildlife Commission. The primary focus of the Bald Eagle Protection Rules is to protect habitat via Bald Eagle Management Plans.

“The Bald Eagle Protection Rules remain in place regardless of the bird’s listing,” said Ruth Milner, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife district wildlife biologist. “Nothing’s going to change with the de-listing of the eagles. They’re still listed as threatened at the state level.”

County rules are integrated with the state’s, the wildlife biologist explained. Eagles and protection of their habitat are addressed in the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance, which also lists osprey and great blue herons.

“It’s a marriage of efficiency and convenience,” Milner said. “The county works with Fish and Wildlife to make sure rules are followed.”

The Island County Department of Planning and Community Development has a map available that shows the parts of the county where eagles are known to inhabit. Shoreline areas are prime locations.

“People call and we refer them to Fish and Wildlife,” said Anne Nysether, planning technician. “When we see a new nest, we email the parcel name and address. We do the same for the blue herons and osprey.”

Island County residents are overall very concerned and hypersensitive about protecting eagles and their habitat.

“We get a lot of calls from concerned citizens because of the eagles and wanting to protect them,” Nysether said.

Best Friend’s Veterinary Clinic in Oak Harbor recently rehabilitated an eagle injured after flying into a feces pool at the county dump. The eagle recovered and was released.

Other residents are on the other side of the fence, eager to see the birds move on. Harrison acknowledged the beauty of the bald eagles, but lamented their predisposition to scavenging.

“We have too many little animals here,” she said. “I would be happy if the eagles went away.”

The last comprehensive eagle aerial survey of Island County was completed in spring of 2005. Forty-seven documented nesting pairs were located on Whidbey Island in 2005, and one new pair was identified, not surprisingly — last Thursday.

“We used to do comprehensive flights every year, but now we do them every five years,” Milner said. “Our eagle population is continuing to grow in Washington.”

Eagles are primarily monogamous, but have been known to change mates if one dies.

“They form long-term pair bonds,” she said. “They will go to the same nesting territory and defend it against other eagles.”

Sometimes the eagles will build more than one main nest, for example, if the original nest is hit by parasites.

For more information about the Bald Eagle Protection Rules, visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/diversty/soc/baldeagle/index.htm.

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