Posted by: Stefan Anderson | June 8, 2011

A Day with the Eagles

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CS2 student Tana Route started out her summer flying high. Tana recently joined her father, National Park Service biologist Bill Route, and her mother Karin Kozie who is a teacher and a biologist, on a day of banding bald eagle chicks in Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Part of an on-going research aimed at studying the presence and influence of environmental contaminants in these majestic birds, Bill Route and his team sample contaminant levels in bald eagles in a series of national park units in the Midwest.

Aerial reconnaissance helps to locate active nesting sites, pin-pointing their location by GPS coordinates. Researchers then travel by boat and foot to the often remote nest sites. As difficult as reaching the nest sites can be, securing the chicks for sampling can be even more difficult.

Eagles will often use the same nest year after year, adding to the structure each breeding season. Nests are often located 75-feet up in old growth white pines set near the water’s edge. Such placement helps to keep predators at bay and to give the eagles a good view of their fishing grounds yet creates a logistic challenge for researchers. Route’s team employs the specialized skills of Jim Spickler of Arcata, California, to help. Spickler is an arboreal ascension expert – a highly-trained tree climber who specializes in helping biologists get data from hard to reach sites. Spickler, who has worked in national parks all over the country, uses a cross-bow to fire a small line up and over a sturdy limb near the nest. He then uses that line to pull up a series of thicker climbing ropes until he has a secure set of lines allowing him to use ascenders to climb up to the height of the nest and secure the birds for sampling. Once on the ground the 5 to 9 week old chicks are weighed and measured. A blood sample is taken, as is a sample of small feathers. These samples will be taken back to the lab and tested for a series of chemical contaminants. The data from the chicks is particularly useful because the young birds have not yet migrated and so have been exposed only to local conditions meaning any chemical contaminants found in their bodies will more likely be the result of local sources.

The team on this day sampled 5 eaglets from 4 of the Apostle Islands – North Twin, Rocky, Cat, and Michigan islands – adding just a bit of knowledge to help biologists understand the role of human-influences on wild creatures like bald eagles and how humans and nature interact. For Tana Route, who came to Conserve School hoping to further her goal of becoming a science writer, it was a chance to get a hands-on experience with bald eagles in a wilderness setting, to further her connection with the natural world she loves, and to spend some time with her parents on the job.

Thanks to Jeff Rennicke for this blog entry and the wonderful photographs!

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