Bald Eagle Researchers in Maine
Charlie Todd was that new gradute student fresh from the University of Richmond who was assigned the job of determining the population status, nesting chronology and status, food habits, summer and winter distribution and everything else about Maine eagles! Truly a monumental task and worthy of a PhD but Charlie just wanted a MS degree. State and federal biologists, volunteers, UM honors students, technicians and many more all pitched in to make his a classic study. It was at a time when our population and nesting success was at rock bottom and Charlie pulled it all together for us and charted a path for recovery. At that time every eagle was priceless and we went to extreems to return every injured bird back to the wild. The picture below of Charlie holding an immature eagle illustrates this. We taught one legged eagles how to forage, rebuilt wings, with the help of local falconers, using feathers from dead eagles, repaired broken bones and then returned all of these birds to the wild. Bart, a male eagle with a lost wing, went into every classroom in Washington and Hancock Counties, as part of an education program. Perhaps the toughest job Charlie had was conducting a winter survey of eagles along the entire coast of Maine, thousands of miles of flying. We wanted to know if there were particular concentration areas that needed special protection. It was long and very dangerous work, and we had two pilots on board at all times. Flying at a few hundred feet, following the coastline around islands and pennisulas, was flying at its very worst. We hired several technicians who made it from Bangor to Ellsworth before we had to land and call a car to pick them up! On the other hand, we finally found Tim Stone, who would sit in the back of the plane and eat onion and liverworst sandwiches and be in heaven! Charlie went on to join the nongame and endangered species group of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), where he resides today. No one knows Maine eagles better than Charlie and he is unquestionably one of the top eagle biologists in the country. We are fortunate to have him directing our state program. Since he is still up flying I can sneak these comments onto the Blog without his editing!!
Mark McCollough came to UM from Penn State. He completed a MS studying shorebird migration in eastern Maine and then joined me on a PhD project looking at the population dynamics, particularly survivorship, of eagles. As we obtained more contaminent data on eagles and their eggs, it became obvious that we could not influence nesting success in the near term, except to reduce disturbance at nest sites. DDE was slowly working itself out of the system and it was only a matter of time before its influence would decline (as we have already seen). On the other hand, we had some of the highest PCB and mecury (Hg) levels in the country. PCB's are banned and should decline slowly but Hg is still coming in by air from the large power and industrial centers in the midwest. Hg accumulates in fish. Our inland nesting birds feed more on fish than our coastal birds, thus Hg is more of a problem on inland lakes. EPA and others have been reluctant to impose tighter restrictions on air emmisions thus our problem continues. Better air quality from the midwest is crucial to better human and wildlife health in the northeast. But back to Mark. We knew that most of our immature eagles left Maine in the fall and returned in subsequent years. They were accumulating contaminents that influenced their future breeding success. What if we could provide ample clean food to our young birds and keep them here in Maine? This should improve their survival and improve breeding success in the long run. So Mark established several feeding stations along the coast where we delivered 100,000's of pounds of clean food over a series of years. Mark ran the show; collecting beaver, deer, moose, cow, horse, chicken, etc carcases, butchering and distributing them. Stories abound like losing a truck load of chickens on the main street of Ellsworth but Mark held firm. To see how effective the feeding program was Mark built observation blinds at the sites. All winter long he'd crawl into these before dawn,wrap up in a sleeding bag, and observe birds with high power telescopes. Immediately he realized he could read the band numbers on the legs of the eagles. We had been banding all of the nestlings in Maine for several years so he was able to get a handle on who was out there. To facilitate this we added specially numbered band tags and an additional band on the other leg. We did this for several years and Mark was able to read these numbers easily. To Mark's surprise and our joy we found that the youngsters were remaining in Maine and surviving at a much higher rate than we had anticipated. Mark was able to show that this was a key factor in initiating our population recovery. At the feeding station Mark was able to read the band numbers of eagles from Cape Briton Island, Chesapeake Bay and as far away as Saskatchewan! Eagles were mixing over large geographic regions, an important genetic consideration. Mark went on to join Charlie in the endangered species/nongame group of MDIFW and recently joined the USFWS as an endangered species biologist here in Maine. We couldn't ask for a better pair of biologists looking after our endangered species.