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Earth Notes

Earth Notes: Arizona's Bald Eagle Nestwatchers

By Diane Hope

Flagstaff, AZ – Bald eagles are a spectacular sight in Arizona's skies year round. Like the human population, they're more abundant in winter, when individuals from up north migrate south to take advantage of milder winter weather.

Come spring the state is also an important breeding ground for these emblematic birds - and since 1978 their success has hinged on a band of eagle-eyed human caretakers.

Each spring the Arizona Game and Fish Department contracts around 20 people to monitor bald eagle nests in high recreational use areas, mostly along the Salt and Verde rivers. With fish their main diet, most eagles nest less than a mile from water, often on cliff ledges. That's a habit generally only shown by eagles in Arizona, and Alaska.

Camping at a discrete distance from nests for 10 days at a time, watchers keep close tabs on the birds throughout the breeding season. They record how the eagles spend their time, and how much food gets delivered to nestlings.

They also monitor people. That includes helping educate visitors and preventing people from disturbing nests. And if eaglets tumble out of the nest prematurely, nest watchers call for help. They've saved over 70 young birds since the program began.

From just 11 known breeding areas 30 years ago, there are now 62 locations for nesting bald eagles across Arizona. But the Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program isn't just a numerical success. For the lucky watchers, it's also an opportunity to observe a family of these magnificent birds throughout the entire breeding season.