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Road Could Chase Off Eagle Pair, D.C., Park Service Officials Say

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Department of Homeland Security -- an agency with a bald eagle on its seal -- might drive away a pair of bald eagles by building a road near their nest in Southeast Washington, officials with the city and the National Park Service say.

The eagles live in a thickly wooded sliver of national parkland in Anacostia, where towering trees overlook their hunting grounds on the Potomac River. When they settled there in 2000, the pair were the first bald eagles to nest in the District in a half-century.

Now, DHS wants to cut an access road through that parkland, officially known as Shepherd Parkway. The road would connect the department's new headquarters, on the grounds of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital, with a traffic interchange at Malcolm X Avenue SE and Interstate 295.

The road is not scheduled to be built until 2014. A spokesman for the department said it had been designed in consultation with eagle experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and would not disturb the birds.

But two officials who oversee wildlife in the city say they are still concerned about the eagles -- fearing that, for birds surrounded by traffic, busy neighborhoods and airplanes, the road might be the last straw.

"The assumption is that there's already so much going on that a little more won't hurt. And I don't think that we can make that assumption," said Bryan King, head of fisheries and wildlife for the D.C. Department of the Environment. "It's a definite possibility" that the eagles will abandon the nest, King said.

Bald eagles vanished from the Washington area and many other places in the 20th century because of hunting, development and the eggshell-thinning effects of the pesticide DDT. The birds rebounded under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. There were 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 in 1963; now there are more than 1,000 in the Chesapeake Bay region alone.

That includes at least three pairs in the heart of metro Washington, all along the Potomac. One pair -- initially George and Martha, then George and the Other Woman -- lives near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Another, which neighbors named John and Abigail after the second president and his wife, lives along the George Washington Parkway in north Arlington.

But the Southeast Washington eagles were the originals.

They might have been among 16 transplanted young eagles released in the city by a local nonprofit organization, the Earth Conservation Corps, in the early and mid-1990s. City and federal officials said the eagles were the only pair nesting in the city, but a Corps official said there is another near the D.C. police academy in far Southwest Washington.

The nest of the Southeast eagles overlooks military installations along the Potomac and the rushing traffic on South Capitol Street and Interstate 295. But the spot offers good access to fishing in Oxon Cove and at the outfall of the Blue Plains sewage plant, and is protected by thick woods and a ravine.

"You get the sense, yeah, these guys know what they're doing," said Stephen Syphax, chief of the resource management division at National Capital Parks East, a group of parks on the city's east side. On one recent morning, he was in a muggy, overgrown ravine, peering with binoculars through the tree canopy, looking for the nest. Finally, Syphax gave up: it was too well hidden to be seen from the ground. "I've lost this guy. But good for the eagles."

Syphax said the planned road would not require removal of the tree with the nest. But, he said, it could take away other trees that the birds use when they are eating, looking for food or loafing. That could drive them out, he said.

"That loss of habitat, will that destroy the eagle? I don't know," he said. "But it's loss of habitat . . . it limits the areas they can perch in."

A DHS spokesman said the road was purposefully laid out a few hundred yards from the birds' nest. The plan for the road was approved this year, after an environmental impact statement determined that there would be a "negligible increase in noise" around the nest.

Craig Koppie, a Fish and Wildlife scientist who is a preeminent authority on Washington area eagles, said he agreed. Eagles might roam widely from their nests, but they return each December to begin the breeding season. They normally use the same nest for seven or eight years before building another nearby.

"I actually don't see [the road] as being a problem," Koppie said. "Clearly, the birds have seen the human infrastructure that's in place," he said, and they don't mind it enough to leave.

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