hey 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.
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."
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."