Eagles land and cause a flap

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It's not much to look at, but it's home for the first eagles found nesting in Philadelphia in two centuries.

The joy over Philadelphia's newly discovered eagle's nest - the first in two centuries - is not universal.

It turns out the eagles built their home on a Navy Yard site that a few important people already have dibs on.

State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and Gov. Rendell back a plan to build a $150 million regional produce market, with more than a thousand trucks rumbling up every day. And the port wants to build a massive maritime terminal.

For now, the birds have the federal Endangered Species Act on their side, so any development may have to be changed, delayed or even halted.

But all bets are off come June, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to delist the eagle because it has rebounded so significantly.

So here in one of the most populous cities in the country, the new resident eagles could well wind up being a test case for how to protect the species into the future.

Ultimately, they may also show new ways for people and wildlife to coexist. As the eagles' numbers have increased, they have set up housekeeping in some unlikely spots.

Less than a quarter mile from their Navy Yard nest, freight trains frequently clatter by. The birds can probably even hear the cheers - or boos - for Philadelphia's other Eagles when they play at Lincoln Financial Field.

"What people are seeing is, eagles are adaptable birds," said Tim Male, senior ecologist with the advocacy group Environmental Defense. "As their population increases, they're finding ways to get along with each other. And with us."

Carole Copeyon, supervisor of the Endangered Species Program at the Pennsylvania field office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said yesterday that she had recommended halting next month's planned demolition of some abandoned homes at the Navy Yard site. She also has recommended delaying any construction.

Copeyon said state officials indicated they would comply.

Through a spokesman, Joseph Resta, deputy secretary for public works in the state's Department of General Services, which has taken charge of building the produce market, said the department was "investigating any remedies available to us under the Endangered Species Act. However, we are still fully committed to the project at the Navy Yard."

Copeyon said that, for now, the only way the project could continue is if the development received a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service, a process that could take two years if approved at all.

It would involve preparing a "habitat conservation plan" that would demonstrate how the developers planned to avoid, minimize or compensate for any impacts to the eagles.

An example of compensation: When a new bridge was built on the Capital Beltway around Washington - and near nesting eagles - a lot of money was set aside for eagle conservation in the area, Male said. "The intent was that the harm was mitigated by beneficial things being done elsewhere."

The Navy Yard eagles appear to be sitting on eggs, so this is a critical time. If they are scared away, they may not come back.

After the eggs hatch, the young birds will fledge, or learn to fly, in May or early June.

"It's kind of a tricky process," said Doug Gross, a wildlife biologist with the state Game Commission. "They may hang around the nest quite a while" afterward as they perfect their flying technique.

By autumn, activity around the nest should be at its lowest point.

Nests have been removed. Just this week, federal officials allowed the destruction of three nests near Orlando Sanford International Airport because the birds were deemed a danger after a small plane collided with one last November. The eagle was killed and the plane damaged; the humans were unharmed.

But Copeyon said that in the Navy Yard case, it was "doubtful we would allow them to remove the nest itself."

If the birds are delisted in June, their major protection would come from the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which has no similar provisions for issuing permits. Copeyon said officials were working on such provisions.

That act makes it illegal to disturb an eagle, but it does not define the word. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been wrestling with the definition, which is why the eagle has not yet been delisted.

Larry Niles, who for more than two decades worked with eagles as head of New Jersey's Endangered and Nongame Species Program, said that there were not many places left for eagles to go where there wasn't a conflict.

"In these urban environments, it's best to care for the birds and the birds' location, because at least you're stabilizing it," said Niles, now with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey. If the birds are chased off, "they're just going to keep moving around." Perhaps to an even worse spot.

Darin Schroeder, deputy director of conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy, said one thing to keep in mind was how wonderful it was that the birds were here in the first place.

"It would be my hope that before people get too terribly worked up about this, that they stop and reflect on the fact that a lot of people are going to benefit from seeing a bald eagle in the area," he said. "That's a huge benefit."

Male agreed. "It would be really nice if they're able to find some way to make a project go forward on this site, and still accommodate the eagles."

"You might even have a new tourist attraction on your hands," he said.

 


 

"Something we've dreamed about": See an earlier Inquirer story on the first sighting of the nest at http://go.philly.com/baldeagle


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.