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Baby Bald Eagles At Home Again On Channel Islands

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Biologists celebrate recent recurrence of active nests after a 50-year absence.

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Absent for more than 50 years on Channel Islands National Park, bald eagles have returned and are re-establishing their historic range.

At Pelican Harbor, on the north side of Santa Cruz Island, a bald eagle nest tucked deep in a canyon is active again, as it has been the past two years. This time, the parents will attempt to raise two chicks. As compelling as the nests are, it’s the other active nests spanningthe volcanic archipelago that have biologists and the National Park Service excited.

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“It is thrilling to see the recovery of bald eagles following their extirpation from the Channel Islands,” said Russell Galipeau, superintendent of Channel Islands National Park. “In just six years, we have progressed from releasing birds in the wild to birds being born in the wild.”

There are 40 resident bald eagles out of the 61 released on Santa Cruz between 2002 and 2006. These raptors are proving that no habitat is too good for nesting purposes. Successful pairs will return year after year to the same nest. For the third season in a row, the ground-nesting pair have staked out another depression on the gradual grassy slopes of the south side of Santa Cruz. Their first year resulted in a successful nest.  Last year, their egg didn’t survive the incubation cycle, but his year, they, too, will be working hard to raise two chicks, keeping them corralled in their ground nest in the tall grass.

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The last known successful bald eagle nest on the Channel Islands dates back to 1950 on windswept Santa Rosa Island, but biologists were pleased to announce the first active nest on the second-largest islet since that time.

“It’s a cliff nest,” said Yvonne Menard, information officer for Channel Islands National Park. “It was discovered in mid-March, and both parents were released as fledglings on Santa Cruz.”

The nest was built in a recess of a canyon carved out of a sandstone cliff. It holds two eggs, and the parents are a 6-year-old male and a 4-year-old female. The mother is a bit on the young side. Sometimes at that age parents aren’t successful at their first attempt at parenting, but that wasn’t the case with the pair of birds at Pelican Harbor in 2006. They’re working on their third successful nest.

Biologists from the Institute for Wildlife Studies, which is responsible for releasing bald eagles on Santa Cruz, are fanning out across the other islands in search of more nests.

“They’re looking for more, and there are at least two pairs of eagles on Santa Cruz that are potential parents,” Menard said. “The pairs they’re watching have been seen bonding together this whole year.”

Bald eagles can lay eggs as late as early May, as intensive monitoring will continue until then. Biologists are cautiously optimistic about this trend of recovery, as DDTs and PCBs that contributed to the bald eagles’ decline persists in the Southern California marine ecosystem. Millions of tons of the toxins were dumped off Palos Verdes Peninsula near Catalina Island by Montrose Chemical Corporation from the 1940s through the 1970s. The long-term goal is for up to two dozen nests within the next five years — marking a return to historic levels of bald eagle nests on the northern Channel Islands.

“We’re going to continue to monitor that situation,” Menard said. “It’s clear that DDT is still in the marine environment, but if you look at the California brown pelican, when DDT was banned there was a slow and steady increase in their population.”

For live footage of the bald eagle nest at Pelican Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, click here to go to the EagleCAM. The site also includes a discussion board.

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