KISSIMMEE, FLA. -- Two team members stand ready on the ground. A third straps on climbing gear and scales an old lightning-scarred live oak.
The climber gets no more than 5 feet off the ground when a female bald eagle comes screaming off her nest and circles high overhead, crying at the intruders.
They are nest robbers, members of the Sutton Avian Research Center of Bartlesville, Okla., benevolent thieves who don surgical gloves and masks and, with the approval of federal wildlife officials, steal eggs from eagle-rich Florida.
Four of every five breeding pairs of southern bald eagles nest in Florida. The Sutton team takes the eggs, hatches them and then releases eaglets into the wild in eagle-poor regions of the South.
Because the eggs are taken early in the nesting season, the eagles will "recycle," or lay another clutch, said Alan Beske, Sutton's laboratory director.
Resee Collins, curator of the Florida Audubon Society's Birds of Prey Center in Maitland, said: "The adult birds will lay replacement eggs. We're not affecting the population, but we're able to increase the population in other states as well as maintain what we have."
The latest official survey, published in American Scientist magazine, was taken in 1988 and found 509 remaining breeding pairs of southern bald eagles, 391 of them in Florida.
By aerial survey, Beske has identified about 200 nests in Central Florida, most of them in Osceola, Polk and Highlands counties.
"Florida has the only healthy population of southern bald eagles. This is really the only source for restocking other areas," he said.
The Sutton team hopes to collect 75 eggs this year, take them back to Bartlesville and release 8-week-old eaglets in Alabama, a state where no eagles are breeding.
During the first four-day harvest that ended Dec. 18, team members gathered 28 eggs, said Alan Jenkins, the center's assistant director.
The team takes extraordinary care with the eggs. Local tree surgeons, hired to do the climbing, put on surgical gloves and masks when they reach into the nests to pull out the eggs. All the while, the mother eagle continues to circle overhead.
The climbers place the eggs in a plastic and wooden tube, thickly lined with foam rubber, and lower the tube to the ground in a backpack.
A team member then walks quickly but carefully to a truck, where she transfers the eggs to an incubator.
Team members work fast to keep the eggs from cooling from their ideal 99-degree incubation temperature.
For the two eggs taken from the lightning-scarred live oak, the time lapse from when the mother fled the nest to incubator was 11 minutes.
The first 28 eggs were flown back to Bartlesville last Wednesday aboard a Lear jet. The flight was a gift from a private donor.
The eggs were placed under chickens -- a more effective incubator than artificial, electric ones -- where they will remain until they hatch in about 35 days, Jenkins said.
The chickens have been prepared for the fist-sized eggs by sitting on dummy eagle eggs for about a week, he said.
Once hatched, the eaglets will be fed raw quail meat from a domestic flock raised at the center, fish and ground-up road-kill venison.
"We feed them with a puppet so that they never see people, and they're kept in their tubs on the other side of a partition. The partition has one-way mirrors so that we can see them but they can't see us. The feeders will place a piece of meat in the beak of the puppet, put it through the porthole, and the eaglet will take it," Jenkins said.
The puppet, which resembles an eagle, has a white, plastic head. A brown cloth is draped over the arm of the feeder, whose hand manipulates the puppet's beak.
When the eaglets are about 8 weeks old, they are placed into "hack towers," food-supplied towers in the wild, where they will be monitored but otherwise left alone.
There they will mature, learn to fly, and then leave at about 5 months old, Jenkins said.
"The Sutton Research Center and the project that they're working on are utterly tops in the nation," said Linda Finger, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They're providing a service to the Southeast that would not otherwise be available."
Last year the team gathered 71 viable eggs, 61 of which hatched and were released in Oklahoma, Beske said.
Of the center's hatching rate, Jenkins said, "We do better than nature. In the wild they probably average one young per year per pair. Our average, if we have an egg that's alive rather than dead, we can produce 77 percent of the time."
Eagles lay one clutch of eggs a year, with an average of two eggs per clutch.
This is the team's seventh year of collecting eggs. During its first four, it took eggs from the Gainesville-Ocala area but shifted to the Kissimmee area in 1988 because of its richer bald-eagle population.
Most of this year's six-member collection team returned to Bartlesville with the eggs last week, but they plan to take to the trees again soon, hoping to collect about 50 more eggs, Jenkins said.