Bald eagle family grows with at least one hatchling

By: David Campbell , Staff Writer
Princeton Packet, 04/30/2004

Public continues to respect privacy of distinguished new homesteaders.

The Princeton area's newest homesteaders - a nesting pair of American bald eagles - now have a third mouth to feed, and possibly a fourth, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The eagles' young offspring, one or possibly two "eaglets," hatched on or about April 9, DEP spokeswoman Karen Hershey said Thursday. Now more than ever, she continued, it is essential the public not disturb the area where the nest is located, which has not been disclosed.

Tom Southerland, a world-class birder and veteran nature tour guide living in Princeton, said the birth is significant for the region and New Jersey, which at one point at the height of DDT use decades ago saw its bald-eagle population near zero.

"It is our national emblem," Mr. Southerland said. "It shows if people are keen about saving species, we can do a lot. There are so many downers. Two of the uppers are the return of the osprey and the bald eagles, that's a very hopeful sign."

The ongoing saga of local nesting eagles continues to capture public interest and, according to some, to raise needed awareness of the environment.

"Lots of people are just thrilled to be driving along Route 1 and see a bald eagle fly across," said Brian Vernachio, director of New Jersey Audubon Society's nature center at the Plainsboro Preserve. "It gets people who would otherwise not realize what is going on around them to look a little deeper."

Mr. Vernachio said the eagle is "a noticeable icon" that causes people to take notice when sighted. This, in turn, can result in heightened consciousness of the surrounding natural environment, he added.

For the past couple of years now, bald-eagle sightings in the vicinity of Lake Carnegie and the Kingston lock stirred excitement among many, and prompted speculation - and hope - that eagles had nested.

In February, the DEP confirmed that an eagle's nest had indeed been found in the Princeton area, but was careful not to disclose specifics about the location of the nest in order to protect the site from human interference.

Local eagle enthusiasts have been awaiting word from wildlife specialists on whether the nesting pair had parented offspring. According to Mr. Vernachio, several people are rumored to actually have sighted a chick in the nest.

Now that the birds have hatched, he continued, it is as critical a time for the birds as the pre-hatch incubation period.

The earlier danger was that the birds might be spooked and abandon the nest. With a newborn or newborns, a concern now is that human interference could cause the adults to abandon the chick or chicks, which Mr. Vernachio noted need constant feeding by parents.

The DEP's Endangered and Nongame Species Program has posted bright red "Do Not Enter, Endangered Species" signs in the area of the eagles' nest. The undisclosed area is being regularly patrolled and law enforcement officials will take action against trespassers.

Typically the birds need a minimum distance of 400 meters, or about one-quarter mile, from human activity. About a half dozen residents in the area have agreed to keep watch over the birds and report any interference.

Ridgeview Road resident Lincoln Hollister, a geology professor at Princeton University and a vocal advocate for the birds, said the eagle is a powerful symbol and reminder of the need to conserve its habitat and our environment.

"This really does have a power to it - a hook, so to speak," Mr. Hollister said. "It gets people's attention on the environment. Maybe it's an indication we've got something worth preserving."

Rose Bonini, a friend of Mr. Hollister's who recently sighted one of the eagles while driving on Canal Pointe Boulevard near MarketFair in West Windsor Township, drove home this fact, the university geologist said.

Ms. Bonini, a resident of Robert Road, immediately called her friend and left an ecstatic message on his voicemail.

Describing the sighting, she said Thursday, "Here was this huge bird. I thought, gee that's unusual. When sun hit him, I saw his white head. I was so thrilled, I couldn't believe it."

According to a December Division of Fish & Wildlife report on the state's bald eagle management project, there were 40 eagle nests in New Jersey in 2003. Only three of these were located north of Princeton - at the Delaware Water Gap, Merrill Creek Reservoir and Round Valley Reservoir.

Eagles in New Jersey have made a comeback since reaching a nadir in 1970 when there was only one nesting pair identified. With the ban on DDT in 1972 and subsequent state restoration efforts, the population increased to 23 active eagle pairs in 2000 and 40 last year.

Nevertheless, mortality rates among young eagles is 80 percent, according to the report.