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With Open Eyes And Patience, Nest Watchers Safeguard A New Generation Of Arizona Bald Eagles

Leah Vader’s alarm starts ringing at 4 a.m.

By 4:40, she’s out of the tent and making coffee By the time the sun rises, she’s set up her telescope at “the office,” a hill overlooking the Verde River.

Vader waits for an adult eagle to drop prey into the nest, a sure sign there’s a chick in the nest.

“We always say they don’t feed eggs,” Vader said.    

Vader and about two dozen other people hired by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to watch bald eagles nest every year between February and June.

This is is her tenth year traveling from Wyoming to Arizona for the season. Most nestwatchers are field biologists chasing seasonal work. Vader is an exception.

“I’m a chatty liberal arts major,” Vader said. “I’ve become an intense observer and understander of maps.”

From Scarcity To Soaring Populations

When the nest-watch programstarted in 1978, Arizona’s eagles, and those around the country, had been decimated by the pesticide DDT and humans.

"The nest watchers that we have out there, they really serve as our front lines," said Kenneth "Tuk" Jacobsen is the raptor management coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The first year volunteers watched nests and the department counted eight fledglings. In 2017, paid nestwatchers and department staff totaled a record 82 chicks.

Arizona’s bald eagles are uniquely adapted to the harsh desert. Jacobsen said data shows 87 percent of tracked eagles will nest within about 90 miles of where they were born.

"If the population in Arizona declines, it doesn't have other populations that are going to help bolster it,” Jacobsen said.

Arizona’s nestwatch program is thought to be the only one of its kind. In part because the population here is so small compared to other states. Arizona has about 67 active nests this year. Minnesota, for example, has over 2,300 eagle breeding pairs.

Nestwatchers collect data that helps scientists understand how the eagles interact with the environment, alert biologists to birds in distress and keep people, paragliders and, more recently, drones, away from sensitive nest sites.

Bald eagles were removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007. Although some groups pushed for Arizona’s eagles to be protected longer.

"The bald eagles I think help as a ambassador for other species to get people interested in conservation and see that those efforts in conservation can be successful,” Jacobsen said.

A Conservation Collaboration

Several of the nest sites are on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. The bald eagle’s protection is a collaboration between the tribe and biologists.

“We’re not isolated with our birds,” Vader said. It’s all about the relationship between people and the birds.

TOP: Arizona’s bald eagle population has continued to grow since the birds were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. LEFT: Leah Vader said her earrings were made by Lakota silversmith Mike Haskell. RIGHT: Arizona Game and Fish biologist Kurt Licence scales a Cottonwood tree to retrieve bald eagle chicks from a nest. Mariana Dale/KJZZ

Throughout the nesting season, Vader and her eagle watching partner Jen Ottinger will visit school children, Earth Day celebrations and senior centers to share what they're learned about the tribe's bald eagle community.

Bald eagles play a role in Yavapai history and in their culture.

In some versions of the Yavapai creation story, a young boy disguises himself as prey to be carried into the eagles nest. Once there, he kills the family of the eagles for murdering his mother.

“Some people even believe now that it actually repaid us by actually coming out and, I don’t know how you would say it, but by saving us,” said Raphael Bear, former president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.

The federal government tried to build a damthat would have flooded most of the tribe’s land l in the 1970s, including known eagle nesting sites. The Yavapai fought the Orme Dam proposal and won. 

Donald Beckman grew up on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and said he was taught the the ancestors pointed to the eagles for answers.

“They will come when you need help, they know,” Beckman said.  Beckman participates in tribal songs, including those directed at the eagles.

“I’m happy that you’re here, it’s good that I see you, I can almost understand you and what you saying in your words,” is the English translation for one song.  

'They’re A Mighty Bird, But Little Things Can Harm Them.'

A small group of biologists, nest watchers and members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation community tromp through the mesquite one April morning.

A cottonwood tree rises overhead. A collection of sticks fashioned into a nest the size of a loveseat is wedged between the branches.

It’s an eagles nest.

An Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist straps into a harness and begins to climb.

Game and Fish biologists remove two roughly 5-week-old chicks from the nest to measure and mark them with metal bands.

This is the one guaranteed opportunity nest watchers have to see the chicks up close.

“I was super nervous the first time I held one. I had to be talked into it,” Vader said.

The mother of four’s maternal instinct kicked in as she nestled the brown-gray bird under her arm.

Its already-sharp black talons were wrapped in cloth an a leather hood covered the chick’s eyes, calming it.

Though it’s generally frowned upon in the wildlife biology community, Vader sometimes can’t help but talk about the birds like they’re humans.

“Eagles are the strong, sensitive type,” Vader said. “They’re a mighty bird, but little things can harm them.”

A few weeks after that visit, one of the two chicks in this nest dies. Vader thinks an evening windstorm swept the little female from the tree.

“You know that was really sad, that was one of those bad days,” Vader said.

These small tragedies are a part of eagle watching.

Vader’s brother died unexpectedly last January, just as Vader arrived in Arizona for nest watch training.

“I just like processed the whole thing standing here and watching eagles grow,” Vader said.

She noticed a comforting rhythm.

“The cycles, the coming and going, and the life and the death that you see — it just helps me to know my place,” Vader said.

And that place is temporary, she said.

The other chick in the nest also disappeared one day. Vader scoured the vegetation underneath the tree.

“I just hear a little rustling and something scooted off there and I’m like, baby!” Vader exclaimed.

The young bird was alive and it’s back home, for now. Vader will continue to watch from a distance until the little eagle flies from the nest on its own.

Even then, odds are against the bird making it to breeding age. An estimated 75 percent of fledglings die before they reach adulthood.

“You have to be patient there’s just so much that cannot be controlled,” Vader said.

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.