Woods Canyon Eagles Could Colonize Rim

Bald eagles raise a record 67 fledglings, including first eaglet born in promising Rim lakes habitat

This eagle was perched for several hours Sunday afternoon at Willow Springs Lake on the Rim. The eagle is believed to be one of the pair that have been nesting at Woods Canyon Lake. A smaller eagle was spotted at Willow Springs the same day.
To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

This eagle was perched for several hours Sunday afternoon at Willow Springs Lake on the Rim. The eagle is believed to be one of the pair that have been nesting at Woods Canyon Lake. A smaller eagle was spotted at Willow Springs the same day. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a> |

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Tom Brossart/Roundup

One of two bald eagles at Willow Springs Lake Sunday afternoon takes time for a little pruning as he rests on his perch high above the lake. It is believed this eagle is one of the Woods Canyon Lake eagles which produced a fledgling earlier this year. To Buy This Image, contact: <a href="mailto:atowle@payson.com">atowle@payson.com</a>

Rim Country became bald eagle country this spring, when a gawky fledgling hatched in a stolen osprey nest on the shores of Woods Canyon Lake, joining a record-breaking crop of baby Arizona eagles.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department this week lifted its closure of one end of Woods Canyon Lake, now that the single eaglet born there this spring has taken flight. The proud parents and the bedraggled youngster will likely remain in the vicinity of the lake for the next several months, with the parents sometimes feeding the still inexperienced young-un.

Arizona eagles this year laid a record 77 eggs and produced a record 67 babies. Some 47 of those babies lived long enough to take flight, the second best year for fledglings.

Last year, a pair of bald eagles drove an osprey out of its nest in a dead snag overlooking Woods Canyon Lake and tried to start a family. They proved unsuccessful due to a freak, heavy May snowstorm that chilled the eggs before they hatched. But this year the proud pair produced a single chick.

Arizona Game and Fish Eagle Management Coordinator Kenneth Jacobson said the success of the Woods Canyon Lake eagles could mean lots more eagles in Rim Country.

Typically, eagles establish a territory centered on a lake or stream and return to that area year after year to nest. Their young undertake amazing migrations that can take them deep into Canada. When they’re 4 or 5, they will try to set up their own nest territory — usually not far from where they were born.

Jacobson said the offspring of the Woods Canyon eagles ought to find lots of prime, unoccupied territories that will include other Rim lakes and streams. He noted that 10 years ago, Arizona’s high country boasted only a single pair of nesting bald eagles, raising their young atop a huge pine overlooking Luna Lake in Alpine. The offspring of those eagles have now started finding territories of their own nearby.

“That’s exactly what we’re seeing in the Alpine area — the young from that pair are the ones that are going to start populating the lakes in the White Mountain area.

All told, the population of Arizona bald eagles has jumped four-fold in 30 years, thanks in part to a partially funded federal program that posts “nest watchers” near vulnerable nests to safeguard the birds and keep people from endangering the chicks by provoking the parents into leaving the nest.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently took bald eagles nationally off the endangered species list, saying populations had recovered from the crash caused largely by the effect of the pesticide DDT on their eggshells. Environmentalist appealed the delisting for the population of desert eagles in Arizona.

A federal judge called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s action “arbitrary” and ordered it to reconsider. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been taking comments on the question for nearly a year and will announce a final decision in October.

Environmentalists had argued that because the Arizona eagles are a little smaller and nest earlier in the year than other eagle populations and because young eagles look for a nest near their birthplace when they come of age, the thousands of bald eagles that pass through Arizona don’t add to the local population or stay through the winter.

Some eagle advocates fear that a delisting could dry up federal funding for various conservation efforts.

Jacobson said the $150,000 annual nest watch program has so far not only saved about 65 chicks, but has prevented disturbances from threatening nesting pairs.

This year nest watchers keeping track of a pair of eagles on the lower Salt River were alarmed to note the disappearance of the male with a chick in the nest. A single parental eagle generally can’t catch enough fish to keep a chick alive, so the nest watchers begin leaving out extra fish near the nest.

The single mother managed to rear the chick successfully — the first known instance among the Arizona eagles of successful single parenthood. The nest watchers dubbed the eagle “supermom.”

Jacobson said the 23 state, federal, local and tribal agencies cooperating to form an Eagle Management Committee will continue to fund the nest watch program, even if the Fish and Wildlife Service decides to delist the desert eagles. He said separate federal legislation sets out protections for both bald and golden eagles similar to what they would enjoy if they were still listed as endangered.

The Arizona eagles have consistently surprised biologists by their reproductive success. A decade ago, eagle experts figured the population of nesting birds here had occupied all the available nest sites — relatively low elevation stretches of stream with plenty of cliff faces of big cottonwoods in which to build nests. That estimate was based on the assumption that a nesting pair of eagles needed a territory with about 12 miles of streams in order to successfully rear chicks.

But the eagle population has more than doubled since then, mostly because the eagles have squeezed into much smaller territories — nesting an average of every six miles or so along core areas of the Salt and Verde rivers.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise,” that the eagles keep finding new nesting territories as the population grows, said Jacobson.

The eagles have managed to work out the smaller territories, with a lot of screeching, dive-bombing and fighting.

When a new pair moves into an established pair’s territory “they’ll conflict for the first couple of years as they figure out their territorial boundaries. Sometimes it will come to blows or aerial fighting. Eventually it comes down to where one will perch in one tree and one will perch in an adjacent tree and they’ll sit there and yell at each other a bit — like they’re eventually saying ‘fine, you can stay —as long as you stay over there.’”

The life-mated pairs need good fishing spots to sustain themselves and one or two chicks through the spring.

Now, it turns out the eagles can crowd together more tightly than the biologists expected, nest in pine trees and snags and cope with high country storms and temperatures.

The biologists still have no idea where the Woods Canyon pair came from, but assume they were born along the Verde or the Salt rivers. The nest was such an important beachhead that three nest watchers kept tabs on them through the spring.

Jacobson said that eagles don’t seem to mind having people around so long as they stay about a football field’s length away from the nest tree. If people get much closer than that, the parents may leave the nest to try to drive off the intruder — which could chill the eggs or leave the chicks vulnerable to sneak attack by some other predator.

The little Woods Canyon family can be spotted for the next couple of weeks at any of the nearby lakes. Eagles also now remain a delightful surprise for hikers and boaters along the Salt and Verde rivers and around the shores of Roosevelt Lake.

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