WEST BOYNTON - Park officials can't remember the last time bald eagles were
found nesting in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge,
but now they're keeping a protective eye on a pair in a portion of the
Everglades that is off-limits to the public.
The rare discovery was an unexpected side benefit in the battle to remove invasive trees in the refuge. And, park officials say, it is further evidence of the bird's remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction in the 1960s.
"This is our national emblem. This is what America stands for," said refuge spokeswoman Serena Rinker. "To see [the eagle] come back the way it has is really important. It gives us hope."
The bald eagle became a federally protected species in 1940, but the country's symbol of liberty was already in steady decline. By the early 1960s, the eagle's population reached an all-time low with an estimated 417 nesting pairs in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the bird on the endangered species list soon after, where it remained until this June.
There are believed to be close to 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles today, with a significant percentage of them in Florida. The Sunshine State has 1,133 nesting pairs, second only to Minnesota in the lower 48 states.
Even so, sightings of bald eagles are rare in the sprawling wildlife refuge in western Palm Beach County. And nesting eagles are rarer still.
Rinker said she hasn't found another documented case in the refuge over her 18-year tenure. So when news leaked out that South Florida Water Management District employees clearing nonnative melaleuca and Brazilian pepper trees from the refuge late last month had stumbled upon two nesting adult eagles, refuge officials became almost giddy.
"I was so excited. I wanted to go out right away and snap photos and take a look at them," said Cindy Fury, a senior wildlife biologist at the refuge.
"There is so much day-to-day stuff we work on with water issues and protecting native birds, that when something like this happens it just picks everyone up," Rinker said. "Everyone pays attention."
The discovery couldn't have come at a better time for park officials bracing for a potentially devastating drought with no clear end in sight. The dry conditions are not only a fire hazard if lightning strikes, but they shrink the food supply for native wading birds such as ibis and herons and makes their ground-level nesting more vulnerable to predators, Fury said.
"There's been so much bad news lately," Rinker said. "The nesting eagles are finally some good news."
The eagles were found in a nest perched atop a dead pine tree in the northern area of the refuge. The public is not allowed in this area of the wilderness, but just to be safe refuge officials have added another layer of protection: They've made it illegal to come within 1,000 feet of the birds. Even park officials are being careful not to get too close, for fear they might disrupt the eagle's courtship process.
No one knows for sure whether eggs are already in the nest. But Fury said it can take months for eagles to mate.
The nest is located a few acres south of the water district's Stormwater Treatment Area off Southern Boulevard, part of the Everglades restoration project and the setting of an exciting resurgence of native wildlife over the last two years. The state's effort to clean polluted storm water from farms, cities and suburban neighborhoods has left acres of standing water that have become habitat for many species of birds once thought lost to this area of Palm Beach County.
Rinker and Fury believe the bald eagles might not have nested in the refuge if not for the nearby food source from the Stormwater Treatment Area.
"These eagles are a feel-good story," Rinker said, "and we hope they stick around."