In 1983, with the financial support of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Endangered Species Fund and subsequent grants from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, The Pennsylvania Game Commission's bald eagle restoration project began.
A group of Game Commission employees, referred to as the "Eagle Recovery Team," flew 1,700 miles northwest to LaRonge, Saskatchewan, to capture young eagles and bring them back to Pennsylvania. At the time, the Saskatchewan province had a stable population of about 1,500 breeding pairs of eagles. Like other birds of prey, bald eagles often return to the region where they fledged from. When mature and ready to breed, at about five to six years old, the birds may nest in the same general area. It was hoped that the young captives taken from Canada would one day establish breeding territories in Pennsylvania.
Before the team arrived in June, Canadian biologists surveyed an area north of LaRonge and marked active nests on topographic maps. These map markings guided the team; GPS technology was not yet available.
From LaRonge, an Otter floatplane shuttled the team and gear north to a central location accessible to the active nests. Here they set up a cache site where the young eagles could be processed, fed and monitored. Each bird would be examined for general health and parasites, measured and banded with leg bands for identification. Several team members remained at the cache site to tend to the eaglets and fish for northern pike, food for the birds.
A vast forest wilderness devoid of roads or trails surrounded the cache site. From here, two groups of men boarded smaller aircrafts called "Beavers." Each group consisted of a pilot, climber and two ground support people. The Beaver is a four-man floatplane designed for slow, low-level flying, a necessity for this mission. The cramped aircrafts took off in opposite directions targeting specific nests.
From the indicator dots on the maps, a pilot located the general area of a nest, and then descended to 100 feet above the trees. Pilot and passengers searched the tree-tops to find a nest hidden in the forest canopy.
It was a challenge finding nests from the air because they were frequently obscured by foliage. After finding the nest, the pilot and crew would finalize location details to ensure they could find it on foot, and got a headcount of the nestlings. Each nest had to have a minimum of two young because one eaglet had to remain for the parents to rear.
After landing, the crew packed climbing gear to the base of the nest tree. Some nests were near the shore while others required considerable effort to reach through the dense bush. Nests ranged from 35 to 80 feet off the ground. The climber scaled the tree with the adult eagles circling overhead and squawking in warning. Once positioned at the nest, the climber placed one of the nestlings, now five to seven weeks old, in a sack and carefully lowered it to the ground support crew. If the nest had three young, he would take another repeating the process.
When the climber was safely on the ground, the crew returned to the plane and transferred the birds to specially designed crates. The crew then took off for the next nest site. As the crew secured two or three eagles, they returned to the cache site to drop off the birds for processing.
On the first mission, the recovery team captured 12 eaglets over a period of two days. It was the first of seven annual recovery missions. The final trip in June of 1989 yielded 15 eagles, all captured in one day. During the seven-year project, 88 Canada-born eagles were released in Pennsylvania.
Haldeman Island, a Susquehanna River island in Dauphin County, served as one of two release sites chosen for the Bald Eagle Recovery Project. The other site was Shohola Lake in Pike County, State Game Lands 180. A hack tower, complete with nest boxes and perching branches, at each site awaited the young eagles. Once transferred to the tower, the young eagles had no human contact. Student interns fed the birds with a long pronged stick through a small, one-way glass window and guarded them from predators and human disturbance. The eagles lived in the towers until they reached 12 weeks old. At that time, Game Commission officials opened the hack tower gates to release the birds into the wild again.
By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross