With His Mate Wounded, George Tends the Nest

The eagles
The eagles "will show us what our next move is," say wildlife experts keeping an eye on the nest where chicks are expected to hatch soon. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

A grim drama is playing out at a longtime bald eagle nest near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, with an uncertain ending for the chicks that are due to hatch there any day now.

A pair of eagles, nicknamed George and Martha by bridge construction workers, have set up housekeeping in Maryland within earshot of the bridge's traffic and construction cranes each year since 1999. Last month, the female laid at least two eggs, which the pair has taken turns incubating. If all goes well, the chicks will hatch this week.

But Martha was attacked in midair Wednesday by another eagle, probably a female seeking to take over her turf. The eagle population has boomed in the Chesapeake Bay region in recent years, and the competition for real estate has grown fierce as available habitat has dwindled.

As George guarded the nest, Martha fought back. Construction workers watched the birds tumble through the air, break apart and re-engage several times before crashing down. The other bird flew off, but Martha stayed on the ground, her white-feathered head splattered with blood.

Someone called Stephanie R. Spears, an environmental specialist for the bridge project who has monitored the eagles for years. Spears was sure that, unless people intervened, Martha would bleed to death or be killed by foxes that have a den nearby. She consulted with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who suggested she take Martha to a veterinary hospital in Delaware, the closest facility with expertise and space.

A four-member team, including Spears, formed a circle to hem in Martha, who had backed up against a fallen tree. The eagle did not give up easily -- a video of the capture shows her slashing Spears with her talons and hitting her with a wing -- but the group managed to push Martha into a plastic trash can punched with air holes for the drive to Delaware.

Martha is recuperating at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, where veterinarian Erica Miller said yesterday that she is "cautiously optimistic" that the bird will survive and return to the wild. Her beak and sinuses are badly injured, and she has serious puncture wounds. But Miller said she can walk and "holds her wings well," so her chances of flying again are good.

Rehabilitation could take weeks, though, and meanwhile George is on the nest alone. Yesterday he snagged a fish from a passing osprey, but he needs to eat twice a day, which means he must leave the nest unguarded while he hunts. Another eagle -- presumably the one that attacked Martha -- came by at least once yesterday.

George may pair up with the new female, and she could become stepmother to the chicks, Spears said. Or, he could fly off with her and abandon the nest, or he could take on the job of raising the young alone.

Spears said she and federal wildlife managers also are considering whether to put the eggs -- or chicks, if they hatch soon -- into a surrogate nest elsewhere in the region, where they might have a better chance of surviving. That decision may be made today.

"The birds," she said, "are going to show us what our next move is."

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