Is Popular Eagle Pair Missing?

George, shown in 2004, has lived with another bald eagle, Martha, in a nest near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge since the late 1990s.
George, shown in 2004, has lived with another bald eagle, Martha, in a nest near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge since the late 1990s. (Photos By Stephanie Spears -- Wilson Bridge Project)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

It has been almost four months since George and Martha were last seen on Rosalie Island, a sliver of land jutting into the Potomac River from Maryland, just below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The pair of bald eagles who have lived in the nest within earshot of the bridge since the late 1990s haven't been spotted since May, when they were spied roosting together just two months after Martha was attacked by a dominant female.

But it doesn't mean they won't be back, said Stephanie R. Spears, an environmental specialist for the Wilson Bridge Project.

"I'm not concerned right now," Spears said. "I won't know for certain until the breeding season in January or February."

The eagles captured national attention in April, after Martha was severely injured when the couple's nest was assailed by another eagle, apparently a female trying to take over the territory. Wildlife specialists say such clashes have become increasingly common because of rehabilitation efforts that have boosted the population without expanding the eagle habitat.

During the attack, Martha went on the offensive while George protected their eggs. As construction crews working on the bridge looked on, Martha engaged in a spectacular battle with the trespasser, colliding with her several times in midair before crashing, broken and bloodied, to the ground.

Bridge workers fended off further attacks by the attacking eagle, but Martha was terribly wounded, her wings punctured and her beak crushed by the blows. She was taken to a bird rehabilitation refuge in Delaware, where she recuperated for about a month before being returned to the wild.

The region followed the birds' saga throughout the spring. Bridge officials said they were inundated by inquiries from well-wishers who cheered at Martha's recovery, marveled at her return to the nest and mourned when they learned that the chicks the couple were tending did not survive.

"We got a lot of public interest, really from all over the country," said Michelle Holland, a spokeswoman for the Wilson Bridge Project. "People were really concerned for their well-being and genuinely interested in their situation."

The birds' travails coincided with several milestones in the construction project.

In May, the first of two new spans was dedicated. In June, traffic on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway crossed it for the first time, and in July, inner-loop traffic was routed onto it. Last month, a half-mile section of the old bridge on the Virginia shore was blown up.

Spears, the environmental specialist, said the bridge work and explosion would not have frightened off the birds. Noise levels have been well within regulations, she said.

The eagles may still be in the area, she said. The bridge project owns about 80 acres of eagle preserve in the area, and the couple's territory -- dense with trees and places to hide -- extends for more than a mile, she said.

But it is also possible that the pair, or just Martha, could have left for good in search of a new home.

"Basically, there was a fight in the wild," Spears said. "As much as we all love Martha, she lost. Whether or not she gave up the territory, and whether they maintained their bond after the ordeal, I don't know. I'm curious like the other people to find out how this story with George and Martha ends."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company