Volunteers help save Florida’s bald eagles one bird at a time.
They trek through swampy wilderness and across the parking lots of office parks and strip malls. Fighting off hordes of mosquitoes;
dodging traffic; and avoiding the likes of snakes, wild boars, and the occasional errant shopping cart, these dedicated souls
monitor the actions of one of this country's most cherished national symbols. They are the volunteers and lifeblood of the
Audubon EagleWatch program―Florida residents who watch and record the movements of many of the state's bald eagles.
Started in 1992 with 22 monitors, EagleWatch now utilizes about 275 volunteers who dutifully watch upwards of 300 nests and their resident eagles―about 25% of Florida's total of 1,200. While that's not yet enough to relieve concerns about the eagle's long-term viability, it has allowed the birds to spread their wings throughout the state and in places that might surprise the casual observer.
Edward Slaney of Melbourne watches two nests. One sits some 400 yards behind a fire station and office park. "You can see
the nest from the parking lot," he says. "But you can't get much closer because of the woods and swamp that surround it."
The other nest is in someone's backyard. "It sits in a tall pine in the middle of what use to be horse pasture but close enough
to the house and road that it's easy to get to."
In contrast to that accessibility, the Wheeler family monitors a nest near Cape Canaveral in the middle of a wildlife refuge. Kim Wheeler, who shares eagle-watching duties with daughter Makayla and husband Mike, describes one attempt at monitoring their eagles. "We're always on the lookout for boars near the nest," she says. "We see their tracks and places where they've been rooting around. The other day, we were riding our bikes back to the spot where we could see the nest, and we heard what we thought were boars in the brush not far from us. We thought it best to turn ourselves around and get out of there."
In addition to evading the occasional surly creature, volunteers spend numerous hours monitoring and recording information about their eagles. They file reports detailing the condition of the nests, the amount of noise and human activity in the area, and their eagles' behavior―for instance, are they building a nest or fighting with other eagles? Volunteers have had to rescue wounded eagles or eaglets that fell from the nest and then drive them to the raptor clinic at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland.
Volunteers also spend an average of 10 hours in training, learning how to identify nests and whether eggs or eaglets are present―even
how to spot and report illegal development near a nest. Once they're actually monitoring―which is usually between October
and May, when the eagles have migrated to the state―volunteers also learn more about patience. "Most of the time when you
go out, you see nothing, especially early or late in the season," says Ed. Kim and Makayla estimate they spent nearly three
months last year trying to find their nesting pair after they abandoned their previous nest. "When we did finally find the
eagles, it was so exciting," says Makayla.
Lynda White, who's been EagleWatch coordinator since the program began, believes that without the volunteers Florida's bald
eagle population might not be as healthy as it is today. "The data they're collecting is so important," she says. "The state's
fish and wildlife commission did a six-year study on the eagles' survival and also where they go. The commission did its own
research, but it also used data that we gave them. This was an important scientific body of work, and the EagleWatch Volunteers
were credited with helping. That just validated it for us."
"Without the volunteers," continues Lynda, "there wouldn't be an EagleWatch. I am the only staff person, and I couldn't do it without them."