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Rare N. Utah eaglets thrive despite the odds

Bob Walters wasn't concerned at first. But after four hours and no sign of "Pop," he got worried.

Life is hard for a bald eagle. And it wasn't like the big bird to be away from his three nesting eaglets for so long. His behavior was enough to warrant concern."It's funny, you study these birds long enough and you start feeling pretty motherly. You begin to feel for the family. You want them to go on, and when the male was gone for so long, I began to worry," he said in an almost apologetic tone.

Nestled in the top limbs of a dead tree along the shore of the Great Salt Lake is a large bunch of twigs tightly meshed in the shape of a bowl. Currently it is home to three nearly grown eaglets and the only known nesting pair of bald eagles in northern Utah.

The last documented pair of nesting bald eagles in northern Utah was reported in 1928.

Walters, head of the nongame program for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said he knows of only three other nesting pairs in Utah, two near the Colorado River in southeastern Utah and another in Price.

Which is somewhat surprising since Utah is a winter retreat to bald eagles from up north. There have been as many as 1,263 birds in Utah at one time.

Walters admitted that there could be more nesting pairs, "but we simply aren't aware of them."

Eagles mate for life and when they do take up housekeeping, it's usually permanent residency. This particular pair built the nest in the tree or snag in 1996 and have successfully raised two eaglets to maturity there each spring until this year when triplets appeared.

The three eggs hatched about 11 weeks ago. Within the next two weeks the birds should be in full, albeit somewhat clumsy flight. They will stay near the nest until late July or August.

And then?

"Who knows. We simply don't know where the birds leave and go off to. To monitor their flight would take a tremendous amount of money to do radio telemetry. We do know they are a very nomadic bird. One problem is there is a very high mortality rate of young birds in the first year. We don't know how many of the young have survived," he added.

Between 60 percent and 70 percent of the hatched bald eagles die in the first year from a number of hazards, including electrocution, starvation, predators, poison baits and poachers.

Also, it takes between four and five years for the birds to mature and develop the white heads, "So if there are any survivors, we may start seeing them in the next year or two. The birds actually do have a real affinity for the natal area."

Utah winters are good for the bald eagles because of the comparatively mild temperatures and the abundance of prey, such as carp and ducks from the marshes along the lake and rabbits.

In the spring, however, the eagles fly north into Canada and Alaska, despite what Walters considers, "some good year-round living conditions for eagles. I'm surprised we don't have more birds staying around."

Walters and Val Stock, a volunteer, spend time in the spring watching the birds from hatching to fledgling. One of the primary concerns is that one of the young eaglets will fall or be pushed, unintentionally, from the nest.

Walters was also concerned about the dead tree in which the nest sits. Other large trees in the area had fallen to high winds, which are common in the area. If the nest were to fall, where would the eagles move?

In November, Utah Power and Light crews set a large telephone pole next to the tree and then braced the two together.

Watching the birds for the past four years, Walters admitted he has taken a anthropomorphic, almost romantic view of the eagles.

"I'm amazed at their ability to learn and survive, particularly this year with the high winds, the rain and hail, and cold temperatures. They're an amazing bird.

"Then as you watch them mature you see them do some amazing things. They're like kids learning to ride a bike, first with training wheels, then having someone run alongside the bike, and then being off on their own. The eaglets flap their wings, then soar a little off the nest when a wind comes along, then pick up sticks from the nest, soar over the other eaglets and drop them. Then you'll see one bird in the nest and another jump into the nest as if to get a reaction, just like kids," he added.

Walters will introduce his charges to interested people during three scheduled field trips, June 16, 17 and 19. The viewing site will be about 400 yards from the nest. There will be binoculars and viewing scopes available, but he encourages people to bring their own.

The trips will leave from DWR offices, 1594 W. North Temple, each of the three days at 6 p.m. Participants will follow Walters in their own vehicles.

He said this is an excellent time to view the birds because as they learn to take wing they are much more active and animated . . . just like kids.