Team keeps an eagle eye out for endangered birds

Bob Gross
The Times Herald

China Township — Dave Best was bleeding slightly from where a bald eagle chick had nicked his left hand with its beak.

That seemed only fair, because Therese Best — his wife — was in the process of taking 10 cubic centimeters of blood from the chick.

Therese Best carries a bald eagle chick over to her husband, Dave, as they work on banding and taking blood samples at the DTE Belle River Power Plant in China Township. It was the fourth of seven nests they examined to have triplets.

The mutual bloodletting had a purpose. Dave Best is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and he's working under contract for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, monitoring bald eagle chicks and taking blood samples as part of a water quality monitoring project to look for the presence of toxins such as PCBs, pesticides and mercury in the environment.

The Times Herald reports that he and his wife, volunteer Kim LeBlanc and tree-climber Ariana Laporte surveyed two female chicks and a male chick in a bald eagle nest in a large cottonwood tree at DTE Energy's Belle River Power Plant in China Township.

Besides being weighed and checked for general health and parasites — and losing a little blood — the chicks also were banded so researchers have a way to track their movements.

The team surveys bald eagle chicks in the lower half of the Lower Peninsula. The chicks at the Belle River Power Plant were Nos. 15, 16 and 17 — and it was the fourth nest of seven to have triplets.

"This is the year of the triplets," Dave Best said.

The Belle River plant is part of a program through the national Wildlife Habitat Council, said Kristen LeForce, a biologist who works for DTE Energy as wildlife habitat coordinator.

"Including this site here, we have 35 certified wildlife sites," LeForce said.

The Belle River property is home to animals such as geese and other waterfowl, wild turkeys, coyotes and white-tail deer.

"It's the beauty of a power plant," LeForce said. "We have a lot of space to utilize for wildlife if we are not utilizing it for anything else."

The eagles are a recent addition, she said.

The talons of a bald eagle chick are wrapped at the DTE Belle River Power Plant in China Township as the birds are checked for parasites, weighed and banded.

"Here at this site, this is a new nest," LeForce said. "It was discovered last year. It is exciting for the site here to have a nest."

She said eagles nest at the Greenwood Energy Center near Avoca and the Fermi and Monroe power plants.

Mechanical engineer Manny Romero heads the plant's wildlife habitat program.

"I really like what we do here for the environment," he said. "People think about power plants being bad, but having wildlife kind of disproves that.

"I love being at work and driving around and seeing wildlife," he said.

Dave Best said there are about 800 breeding pairs of bald eagles in Michigan, and the birds no longer are listed as endangered species. In 1963, there were 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the entire lower 48.

Their decline has been blamed on habitat loss, killing by humans and the use of pesticides such as DDT.

Bald eagles remain protected by law, but they still are vulnerable to human activities.

"They're getting killed on the roads feeding on deer," he said. "They're susceptible to getting hit by cars. We're losing 30 to 40 eagles a year from road kill."

He said about another 30 to 40 eagles die from lead poisoning, sometimes caused when they ingest pellets or slugs from deer or waterfowl carcasses.

Best estimated the chicks in the Belle River nest are about 40 days old. They will be ready to fly at about 80 days old. They'll get their distinctive white head and tail feathers at about five years and be ready to breed.

"They do tend to come back after five years to the same general area," Best said.

Laporte, who is a graduate student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, climbed high into the crown of the cottonwood to the huge pile of branches and vegetation that forms an eagle next. The adults quickly vacated the area, but the chicks were a "little feisty," she said.

"I'm learning how to handle them," Laporte said. "You have to hold them like a football. Tuck them under your arm."