Spirituality, wisdom, strength, majesty, freedom: Eagles hold many different meanings among different cultures, throughout history and around the world. In 1782, Congress chose the bald eagle as the United States national bird for its beauty, strength and long life.
However, eagles haven't always thrived here in the U.S. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after World War II, the effects of organo-chlorine pesticides (DDT) severely depleted nest production, and in 1969, bald eagles were listed under the Endangered Species Act. The DDT ban led to increasing populations, and, by the late 1970s, there were an estimated 80 eagle pairs nested in the Chesapeake Bay Region.
Bald eagles were finally removed from the endangered and threatened species list in 2007. However, because of their national significance as denoted by Congress, bald and golden eagles remain protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The population is under a 20-year monitoring plan to make sure it remains at sustainable levels, and the Navy is doing its part.
"The Commander, Naval Installations Command (CNIC), funds most of Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River's natural resource projects," said Jackie Smith, a natural resources specialist with Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Public Works. "Projects related to conservation of federally threatened and endangered species usually have the highest priority. Eagles, in this case, are the conservation of a formerly listed species for which monitoring is still required."
Smith explained that biologists documented the first eagle nest on NAS Pax River, Maryland, in 2006, the second in 2008, and the third in 2014. As a result, CNIC has funded local survey efforts since 2011. Banding was first done in 2015, then in 2017 and again last month.
In fact, biologists from the Center for Conservation Biology at Virginia's College of William and Mary recently banded four bald eaglets from two separate nests on NAS Pax River.
According to Smith, NAVFAC has a cooperative agreement with the College of William and Mary, which contracts an arborist (tree climber) trained to handle the birds. The arborist climbs the tree and lowers each eaglet to the ground where researchers determine the gender; gather general weight, size, and health data; and collect feathers for testing. They then place a band on each of the birds' legs and return them to their nests.
Smith explained that the bands used are not just the standard, unique identifiers used by the U.S. Geological Survey. Pax birds also receive colored auxiliary bands that can be easily identified with binoculars, so NAVFAC experts and others can see if a particular eagle is from the Chesapeake Bay area. That is because there are a number of eagles passing through seasonally as they migrate north and south - not all eagles seen on the base are nesting on base.
"Our reasons for surveying and banding here at Pax River are twofold," said Smith. "The initial purpose was to monitor the nesting success of the species. The data we collect aids our own program, but also feeds back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The other reason goes back to flight operations - we want to know the impact on the eagles from the mission, and then it also allows us to see if the eagles are impacting the flight mission."
That's because bird strikes have downed aircraft and cost the Navy millions of dollars each year in man-hours and repairs throughout the fleet. Bird/Animal Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) is one of the programs the Navy has implemented to mitigate strike risks at shore facilities. According to BASH, the program helps "safeguard air operations assets and flight crews by preventing bird and animal strikes with aircraft."
"I think it's important for the Navy as a whole and for Pax to be seen as good stewards of the environment," said Smith. "We've gotten support from unexpected places: local bird groups supporting our base deer hunting program, which isn't something you would normally expect. ... The birders are interested because the habitats that deer might destroy, if their population happens to grow too large, are the same habitats the birds are using for nesting and cover as well."
The Navy participates in efforts all over the globe to help maintain and conserve natural resources. For example, the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program (REPI) is another one of the many Navy programs that coordinates wildlife and environmental conservation efforts. Although REPI's primary mission is to protect military readiness, it is used at nearly every naval installation to implement various resource management and conservation programs and coordinate with federal, state and local officials.