An eagle sits atop a dead tree on the grounds at Holston Army Ammunition Plant on Thursday. Photo by Ned Jilotn II.
KINGSPORT - Two winged residents of the Holston Army Ammunition Plant embody the perseverance that carried the bald eagle from the brink of extinction to the verge of being removed from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's endangered list.
Eagles were first noticed on the HAAP grounds in 1996, at which time an endangered species management plan was developed for the plant.
But no eagles made the HAAP facility their permanent home until 2005, when a couple were noticed by HAAP Natural Resources Manager Bruce Cole nesting high in a tree on an island on the Holston River within the grounds.
That year the couple successfully mated, had two babies, and the babies survived and flew off in June, hopefully to start families of their own.
The two mature parent eagles apparently liked their home inside of HAAP and nested again in the same place in 2006.
Cole said the babies in 2006 had just hatched in early March when a severe windstorm blew through the area and destroyed their nest.
"We lost the nest, and I waded out there to the island to see if I could find the babies on the ground - to see if we could save them - but I think they actually had fallen in the water," Cole said. "We weren't sure what would happen with the nest being lost, because I guess they could have just relocated. They seemed to stay in the general area for the next couple of months and showed a real affinity for that original nest site. Then I lost sight of them in July and August.
"But they actually were still here that whole time and constructed a new nest, which we verified about the first of November - even larger than the first and about 30 yards from the original nest."
The couple started nesting again this past January, and Cole said he believes the eggs hatched around the first of March.
Early Thursday morning, Cole visited the site and confirmed that there is at least one baby in the nest.
Unfortunately by the time a Times-News photographer arrived Thursday afternoon the baby wasn't showing itself, as one of the parents kept the baby warm, resting in the nest while the other probably hunted for supper.
Cole said he's watched the eagles catch fish out of the river, and they also eat water fowl that migrate to the area in the winter. And Cole was surprised to find during his post-windstorm visit last year an abundance of turtle shells on the ground around the nesting area, which apparently had been discarded by the eagles after their meals.
Cole said he tries to keep his distance and observe the eagles from afar. He said the best way to encourage their prosperity is to leave them alone.
"We pretty much let them do their own thing," Cole said. "We've got a pretty good habitat for them here. This is a really good spot for them for a couple of reasons. Obviously their section of the river is off limits to the general public, so they don't have any disturbance by the general public getting close to the nest.
"Also, because of our in-house endangered species management plan, we have a protective buffer around the nest where we're very limited in the activities we do around there."
Eagles don't like to be disturbed, and the parent who was at home Thursday afternoon apparently became upset as the Times-News snapped photographs from about 300 yards away. It flew to the top of a nearby dead tree.
Cole said it was probably the best defensive position to protect the nest. The mate didn't return home in the approximately 10 minutes that the Times-News spent at the site Thursday afternoon.
The American bald eagle was on the brink of extinction beginning around the second half of the last century but now has a stable population and is in the process of being removed from the government's list of endangered species.
The bald eagle may have been severely affected by a shrinking habitat combined with increased use of the pesticide DDT in the 20th century. DDT was not lethal to eagles, but it may have made an eagle either sterile or unable to lay healthy eggs.
By the 1950s, there were fewer than 500 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states. Today there are an estimated 70,000 bald eagles in existence.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a final decision on whether to remove the bald eagle from the federal list of threatened and endangered species no later than June 29.
There are only four known eagle nests east of Knoxville in the state, and the next closest is located on Cherokee Lake. Typically the babies will remain in the same general area as their parents, although the mating pairs don't let them back into the nesting area after they've left.
Bird watching enthusiasts have reported bald eagle sightings throughout the region. It takes four years for an eagle to become mature enough for mating, and Cole said he wouldn't be surprised if the eagle makes a big comeback in the region over the next few years as offspring begin to mature.
"I am inspired every time I see them," Cole said. "Unless you see them in person you just have no feel for how large they are. When you see them in the wild, especially flying, it's easy to see why they were picked as our national symbol."