Craig Koppie starts talking when he’s 10 feet below a bald eagle nest. “Here I am, here I come,” he says in low, soothing tones, to let the birds know that he’s close. He can hear them, too: the muffled flapping of their massive wings, which can open to a span of seven feet, and a low guttural honking from the baby chicks.
Eagle nests are huge — as much as six feet across and four feet deep. The birds build them 85 to 115 feet off the ground, in huge trees with trunks up to eight feet in diameter.
It’s not easy to climb a tree that big, but “if you’re really going to learn about raptors, you have to be able to get up into the trees and look at the life that occurs there,” Koppie says. “The only way you’re going to do it is climb.”
In 2015, though, Washingtonians got another way to look in on the private lives of eagles: the D.C. Eagle Cam, installed above a nest at the National Arboretum by the American Eagle Foundation.
Before putting up the camera, the foundation and its partners had to check in with Koppie, a wildlife biologist who has worked for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 33 years. Koppie made sure that the Eagle Cam hewed to the guidelines of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and he offered tree-climbing assistance when the cameras and wires were put in place.
Eagles have been a symbol of strength and ferocity long before they became our national bird — as far back as the days of the Roman Empire. What viewers saw when the D.C. Eagle Cam went live was a little different. It was a tender, caring family: devoted parents bringing food to their babies, perching together as if enjoying the view, and sibling eaglets having little spats just like any brothers and sisters.
This is a version of the eagle that Koppie has known for most of his career.
Koppie was 16 when he climbed into his first nest, a red-tailed hawk’s 70 feet up in a Virginia pine. He had no equipment, just adolescent spunk and a budding naturalist’s curiosity. And he was hooked.
After graduating from George Mason University with a degree in biology, he banded birds in Virginia as a volunteer for the Fish and Wildlife Service and offered his time to falcon recovery at the Peregrine Fund at Cornell University. In 1977, the National Wildlife Federation contacted him to help save the bald eagle from extinction.
By that time, there were only 80 nesting pairs in the Chesapeake Bay, compared with the estimated 6,000 that had thrived there in the 18th century. Nationally, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs, according to Fish and Wildlife Service data.
Eagles were dying out due to loss of habitat, hunting and the pesticide DDT, which affected the birds’ fertility.
Koppie remembers pulling infertile eggs out of nests near the bay in the 1970s. If a pair did manage to reproduce, there would be only one offspring. In the 1980s, Koppie helped relocate chicks from Canada to populate the United States. He traveled to 10 nests in four years to adopt babies from eagles that had more than two chicks.
Over the next several decades, the bald eagle came back and was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in August 2007.
Koppie now sees things he never would have thought possible in the 1970s. There are four nests in the Chesapeake Bay area with four babies each. Around 1,600 nesting pairs live around the bay, and there are 143,000 individual eagles in the country, according to Fish and Wildlife data. There are currently three nests here in Washington, including the pair the D.C. Eagle Cam spotlights.
“I’ve had a front-row seat to the recovery of a species,” Koppie says. “And they weren’t just a regular species. They were my passion. To have it happen and to be part of that, I have fulfilled something in my life.”
Koppie now mostly rescues orphaned chicks or consults for groups that want to install eagle cameras.
Last year, he treated a baby with a cold in a falcon’s nest on the 33rd floor of the Transamerica building in Baltimore. He recently responded to a call in Maryland, where an orphaned eaglet was caught in a soccer net at a middle school.
When he drops a startled orphan chick, like the one found in Maryland, into a new nest, the adult eagles always become willing foster parents, he says. Despite their power and strength, eagles possess a capacity for great gentleness, which Koppie has been able to observe as he has lazed around in nests for hours, waiting for teams on the ground to finish work on eaglets.
The eagle parents can use their huge talons to kill, but they can also rip a fish into miniscule morsels to feed to their young.
“They’re holding a fish, and they’re tearing it and getting the tiniest little piece, and this huge beak reaches down with the tiniest pink flesh on the end, to just barely touch this baby’s beak,” he said. “The strength is one thing, but the tenderness — it’s night and day when you get to see that up close.”
When he’s sitting in a nest, Koppie can see the layers of sticks added over the years. The ones from the previous year will be weathered and a lighter brown than the sticks from this year. This gradation is a physical record of the eagles’ family life, and of how long they’ve been together. Eagles mate for life and will use the same nest for rearing each season.
And to any parent, that rearing can seem oddly familiar.
Koppie says that eagles generally bring dry grass to the nest to help soften it. “I’ve watched the mother use her talons to hold the straw or grass that they brought up and tuck it around” the chicks, he says. Then “she lowers herself down, and uses the shoulders of her wings to gather them, and they’re under a blanket for the night.”
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” he says.