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(US NC) Eagles emerging August 09, 2005 6:53 AM

Bald eagle numbers in N.C. are rising, as evidenced by their hard-to-find nests

With the help of a canoe and a global positioning device, Charlotte Matthews records the exact position of an eagle's nest in Washington County. Matthews, a biologist working with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, has identified bald eagle nests in the state's 34 coastal counties since spring. This year, 93 nesting territories were found statewide. The Daily Reflector Photo by Greg Eans
By GINGER LIVINGSTON, The Daily Reflector of Greenville

GREENVILLE -- Days spent walking through snake-infested swamps is not how Charlotte Matthews envisioned her life.

But the 23-year-old native of Eastland, Texas, says the sometimes rough working conditions she experiences are offset by the knowledge that she has a hand in protecting the national symbol.

Matthews is a Greenville-based bald eagle biologist working with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Since the spring, she has identified and tracked the nests of bald eagles throughout the state's 34 coastal counties.

"I didn't go to school wanting to do this," Matthews said. "I do feel like this is work that needs to be done, and not a lot of importance is given to it."

By identifying and recording the location of eagle nests, the state works with landowners to protect the sites, said David Allen, the wildlife commission's coastal regional faunal diversity program supervisor and Matthews' boss.

"One of our biggest challenges in managing the bald eagle populations is knowing where the nests are," Allen said.

The bald eagle is a prime example of how humans can nearly drive a species into extinction.

Timber clear-cutting and hunting harmed the state's bald eagle population, but DDT used to kill mosquitoes and other insects in the early and mid-20th century drove the species to the brink. The chemical weakened the eagle eggshell, killing the chicks before they could hatch.

"From the late 60s to the 1970s, the bird was virtually nonexistent in the state," Allen said. "You would occasionally see an eagle, and there were a couple of places where eagles tried to breed, but they were not successful at that time."

A haven in the making

One hundred years ago, eastern North Carolina was a haven for the birds, with large expanses of tall pines for nesting and an abundance of large waterways like the Neuse River and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds for the eagles to hunt fish, Allen said.

Starting in 1983, 26 eagle chicks were taken from Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania and brought to Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County to be raised and released into the wild.

From those chicks, it is estimated about 140 adult eagles now fly the state's skies, Allen said.

Getting an exact count is difficult, so biologists measure the health of the population by counting the number of nests and the number of chicks in the nests.

That's where Matthews comes in. She was hired to help Allen conduct this year's nest count.

She and Allen started by crisscrossing coastal counties in an airplane to count the nests, which usually are built in tall pines in isolated areas and are hard to see from the ground.

This year, 93 nesting territories were identified statewide, 15 of which are new. At least 84 chicks grew old enough to fly from their nests. In four to five years, the chicks that reach maturity will begin breeding.

Once the nest sites are spotted, Matthews or Allen takes a general reading of the location with global positioning equipment.

Pinpointing the location requires a lot of travel. First there is driving to the county where the nest is located. Then, using global positioning equipment, Matthews finds the right patch of woods. Last, she has to find the tree.

On lucky days, she will find a farm path or timber trail that is easy to drive. Sometimes she has to set out in a canoe. Most of the time she has to walk into the woods, where she once encountered a bear that charged her.

She's also encountered the amazing and beautiful, Matthews said, like finding herself standing five feet from a fawn lying in Croatan National Forest; seeing a turkey with her chick and being surrounded by eight baby quail.

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 August 09, 2005 6:54 AM

Then there are the eagles.

"Every time I see an eagle, I'm just awe-struck," she said. "Eagles are so huge. I always think of them as a big bird, but to see them, they are a dinosaur, they are huge."

Nest whereabouts

Once Matthews identifies the nest from the ground, she uses her global positioning equipment to record its exact location. She then returns to the county tax office, verifies the property owner's name and notifies the person about the nest.

The majority of landowners are excited to learn eagles have a nest on their property, Matthews said. Few worry about the restrictions that are placed in the area to preserve the nest.

The reaction doesn't surprise Allen.

"It's one of those animals that when you see it, you run to tell your family and friends what you saw," he said. "I'm hoping to see the day when people won't run home and tell their friends about what they saw because it will be a common occurrence."

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