In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 6:25 PM on Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Eagle Nest puts on traffic-stopping show


By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

A half-dozen people photograph a bald eagle chick at the nest near the Lake Street and Sterling Highway stop light.

Walk, bike or drive down the Sterling Highway near the Lake Street stoplight, and at almost any time of the day someone will be looking at the most accessible, viewable eagle's nest in Homer. Heck, it could be the most accessible, viewable eagle's nest in America.

In a clump of cottonwood and spruce trees about 100 feet back from the highway along Beluga Slough, for the past two years a pair of eagles has raised chicks in a nest at the top of a dead spruce tree.

"All the concerns about eagles and disturbing them — where do they build their nest?" said Carey Meyer, director of Public Works for the city of Homer. "One-hundred feet from an intersection and the only stoplight within 75 miles."

Sometime soon, if not already, like a lot of Homer youngsters going off to college, the military or new adventures, this year's two young eagles will spread their wings and fly away.

"If you take a look each day, if you see them sitting on the rim of the nest, they're going to be getting ready to go," said Dave Roseneau, a recently retired wildlife biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer.

Eagle watchers near and far have noticed the birds. Debra Leisek of Bay Realty has posted photos of the nest and birds on her blog, with the title "Location, location, location: prime real estate Homer Alaska." On the CoolRVers blog, visitors Judy and Luke Rinehimer of Cool, Calif., wrote "This mama eagle may be the most photographed bird in Alaska."

Last month, on one popular viewing day, about a dozen visitors had pulled into a side street accessible from Public Works to watch the bird. Photographer Herve Ortega of Nice, France, stood on top of his rental motorhome with a ginormous telephoto lens taking photos. Like many who stopped to see the eagles, Ortega said he had just been driving by. If one or two people stop, pretty soon more pull over and it's an eagle viewing party.

The eagles probably don't mind, Roseneau said.

"It's a good looking spot," he said. "The majority of people are tolerant. The birds tolerate people."

Protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, active bald eagle nests can't be disturbed, said Jordan Muir, an eagle permit biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage. That means not doing anything — like taking down a tree — that would affect the ability of the eagles to survive. Watching them from a distance, particularly for eagles who have built a nest close to the busiest road in Homer, would be OK.

"As long as the activity doesn't cause disturbance at that level, there isn't a violation," Muir said.

The stoplight nest is on city land. Without actually doing a survey, it's either on a large parcel in the slough that has a conservation easement or on a smaller strip with a right-of-way easement along the highway. The city uses an area next to the highway in the winter to dump snow, but would stop dumping snow in late winter if the eagles showed up. A city motorhome sewer dump station is further down the right of way toward Public Works.

Bald eagles begin visiting territory they've established in early March. Roseneau said it's likely the eagles at the stoplight nest are the same pair that built the nest last year. The female eagle lays her eggs in early April, and the chicks hatch about 30 to 32 days later. The chicks fledge about 75 to 80 days later, Roseneau said.

With changes in the spruce forest and good nesting trees having fallen down, the local eagle nest situation has been pretty dynamic. Trees that make good nests have an open top and need gaps between upper tree limbs. The stoplight nest tree lost its top and has a good base with outspread limbs — almost a perfect platform.

Eagle territories in Kachemak Bay generally are about a quarter-mile apart, with one nest per area, although some territories can have six or seven nest sites. Females have final selection on nest sites, Roseneau noted.

Mossy Kilcher, who has been in Homer since the 1940s, said she thinks there are more eagle nests than ever before in the Kachemak Bay area. In the 1980s she counted six along the north shore to the head of the bay, compared to 12 she counted this year. She's seen several at Fox Creek and four more at the head of the bay. Roseneau estimated about 25-30 nesting pairs from the Homer side to Peterson Bay.

Chicks start to fledge by getting on the rim of the nest, spreading their wings and hopping up and down. Sometimes chicks don't leave the nest and need encouragement from its parents. An adult will fly in with a meal and drop it outside the nest, teasing the chick.

"Finally it will follow the adult out with the fish or whatever it's got," Roseneau said.

Once the chicks fledge, they'll stick around the nest for a while, taking test flights to nearby trees and back to the nest. The chicks hang out with the parents for another two months, and might even stay with them into the winter. This year's chicks might even show up next year at the adults' territory.

Already, observers have seen the chicks standing on the nest Roseneau said he saw them flapping their wings last week. Other observers have said they've seen the chicks flying and sitting in nearby trees. Whether visiting or living here, people have seen a rare treat: a bald eagle family growing up. Soon, the chicks will be flying on their own.

"If things go right, they'll glide right out there," Roseneau said. "Hopefully they'll do that in a manner they won't fly into a truck."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at