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Eagles Have Landed -- Among Us

Rallying Species Finds Urban Haven on Potomac

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A01

Rosilie Island, a spit of land in the Potomac River where bald eagles roost, has a good claim to being the most unlikely wildlife refuge in the Washington area.

It's not a natural island, or even an island at all. Instead, it's an old sand and gravel dump, where enough dirt was piled over the years to create a ragged peninsula.

Eagles wintering near the Potomac fight over food. Over 20 congregate on Rosilie Island. (Stephanie Spears)

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Then there's the noise and bustle of the huge National Harbor construction project, being built on the island's doorstep. And the small matter of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Tiny Rosilie holds up the Maryland end of this roaring monstrosity, with 200,000 cars passing every day and more lanes under construction.

But somehow, the bald eagles don't seem to mind. As many as two dozen now perch here at any given time, including one nesting pair and a number of transient eagles who use the island as a "loafing ground" in winter.

The northern end of Rosilie Island has been set aside to protect the birds. Soon, similar protection will be given to the southern tip of the island, officials say.

Last week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Craig Koppie watched a white-headed bird sitting placidly on one of the island's trees as traffic and construction equipment rumbled nearby. "It obviously doesn't care in the least what's going on," Koppie said.

Eagle experts say Rosalie Island is one of the busiest, most urban havens established for bald eagles -- and a sign of their return from endangered status 30 years ago.

The birds have exploded in population and -- like dumpster-diving bears and cougars that follow deer into suburban gardens -- learned how to live alongside humans.

"They've figured out how to get along in spite of us," said Jody Millar, another Fish and Wildlife biologist who oversees efforts with eagles nationwide.

The birds were listed as endangered in the 1960s because of the pesticide DDT, which weakened their eggshells and caused them to break. Since DDT was banned, however, the number of nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states has rebounded from several hundred to more than 7,000. Their status has been changed from endangered to threatened.

The expanding population has forced young birds to settle for less desirable real estate, far from rural forests and lakes. They have settled in Southwest Washington and in Chicago, and they have built nests perilously close to airports in Orlando and Minneapolis.

To the eagles of the Chesapeake Bay region, Rosilie is an exurb away from their preferred habitats in rural areas downstream in the Potomac. It's the ornithological equivalent of Warrenton: far out but workable if the commute is right.

"It's fairly low on the totem pole to have to park by a bridge," Millar said. "But if they must, they will."

And it turns out that the Rosilie eagles do have a short commute to find food. Stunned and injured fish sometimes float up in the wake of tugboats. The processed waste that comes from the nearby Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant feeds a large supply of algae, which draws in more fish.

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