The eagle hunters reached the island by motorboat. The massive nest, 67 feet up in a loblolly pine, had been spotted by plane. Twenty minutes later, using professional climbing spurs and ropes, Keith Cline had bagged two 7-week-old bald eagles.
"Hi guys," said Cline, staring into eyes that never before had seen anything in their nest that hadn't been brought home by mom to eat. "Be nice and this won't hurt a bit."
In the spring, when bald eagles take leave from their work as America's national symbol to hatch and raise young, wildlife workers like Cline start snooping into treetops. For about five weeks he and a small crew of state, federal and private wildlife technicians invade eagle nests surrounding the Chesapeake Bay to put leg tags on the chicks and document their domestic life.
"It can get pretty hairy up in some of these trees when the wind is blowing," says Cline, 28, a former tree surgeon who now is on the staff of the National Wildlife Federation's Raptor Information Center. "When the nests are big and the trees are small, you think about how much weight you're adding to it."
The bald eagle, an endangered species that only 20 years ago was being threatened with extinction, is on a comeback. A survey in 1962 counted only 13 eagle chicks born in the entire Chesapeake region. Last year, Cline and his high-climbing crew counted 93.
"The population is recovering here," says Gary Taylor, a wildlife biologist for Maryland, where the largest number of eagles in the region live. "But it won't happen overnight."
The return of the eagle, credited mostly to the ban on the use of pesticides such as DDT in the last decade, couldn't have come at a more appropriate time. By congressional decree, this is the year of the eagle. Two hundred years ago the bald eagle was adopted as the centerpiece on the seal of the United States.
Since then the eagle has become the most sacrosanct of America's animals. Before winning that esteem, however, the fierce-looking hunter that can fly 100 miles an hour and see prey from a distance of three miles, had to survive some high-level slander.
Ben Franklin called the bald eagle "a bird of bad moral character." His choice for the national bird was the turkey. John Adams suggested that the sloth, a South American mammal noted for its laziness, share the U.S. seal with Hercules. And Thomas Jefferson was in favor of tossing out all the animals in favor of the children of Israel wandering through the wilderness.
After six years and three committees, the eagle won an honored spot in American folklore and saved generations to come from mantels decorated with sloths.
Despite the honor, eagles suffered. Development took away their habitat, ranchers shot them for stealing chickens and periodically they were shot for sport and their feathers. The bird's worst enemy, however, was the toxic pesticide that got into their food chain and wreaked havoc on their eggs. The shells became thin and brittle, causing the eggs to crack in their nests.
The Bald Eagle Protection Act and Endangered Species Act passed during the last decade now protect the bald eagle with fines of $5,000 and jail sentences of up to a year for violators.
"People shoot eagles who don't know what they're shooting," said Craig Koppie, one of the banding crew that this day is motoring by boat to a bog of land near Cambridge called Taylor's Island, where an eagle's nest has been spotted.
Waiting on shore are mosquitoes and blood-sucking flies the size of bumblebees. Once the climb starts there will be broken tree limbs, snakes, raccoons and eagle beaks to worry about. Last year a raccoon that had adopted an abandoned eagle nest fell 60 feet onto Koppie's head. Another time a particularly feisty eagle chick slashed Cline's wrist with a razor-sharp talon, then took a bite out of his lip.
"You try not to think about those things, but still be careful," said Koppie, who has been climbing trees in search of birds since he was a 14-year-old in Falls Church. Koppie works with eagles in the spring and hawks in the summer. Between seasons, when there are no state or federal bird projects that need his specialized skills, he works in a factory in Northern Virginia as an unskilled laborer. It is not a job he enjoys, but it gives him the freedom to spend his springs where eagles soar.
On Taylor's Island, Koppie works the ground, manning a safety rope for Cline, who goes up the tree like an experienced logger. By the time he gets to the nest where the two chicks wait, the adult has flown off. Luckily for the climbers and the project, adult bald eagles don't stick around to defend their young from the leg banders.
"There are some interesting feathers up here," says Cline, who gives the chicks time to adjust to his presence before banding them. While the birds sit on the rim of the huge nest, Cline reaches into the center for evidence of what they've been eating. In the last six years climbers have learned that eagles like variety in their diet, things like ducks, turtles, catfish, rabbits, rats and even a house cat.
The banding is done with little trouble. Then Cline returns to earth with data he thinks may help give eagles the environment they need to survive another 200 years as our national bird.