'Maybe I should have worn my helmet' Banding baby bald eagles starts 75 feet off the ground

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

He began climbing the giant white pine along the country road.

The mother bald eagle glared down from the side of her nest, 75 feet off the ground. 

She didn't fly away as expected.

Tom Humphrey kept moving closer, branch by branch.

The eagle didn't move. 

He knows her talons are ten times stronger than a human's grip. The emblem of the United States could put a serious hurting on him, if she so chose.

Two eaglets as they are found by Tom Humphrey in the nest 75 feet in the air.

He repeatedly checked to make sure he was strapped and locked to the tree that stands near the border of York and Cumberland counties. He couldn't reach the nest and help to band, measure and study the babies if the mother balked.

"You need to get in touch with your feelings up there," he would say later. "Like, 'You’ve done this long enough, you know everything's going to be OK, keep on going on.'

"Bald eagles aren’t particularly aggressive. But I have to admit, when I got up there I was thinking, 'Man, maybe I should have worn my helmet today."

Finally, she flew off without incident and Humphrey pulled himself over the edge of a nest so large he could have easily stretched out in it.

He scooped up the eaglets, who weren't yet old enough to fly — or truly use the breathtaking power building in those feet. They were still awkward, compliant lumps of brown feathers speckled with white.

He lowered them, one by one, to his banding partner on the ground.

The eaglet is banded by Tom Blizzard.

Tom Blizzard quickly unzipped the bag, pulled out the eaglet and began his work.

Blizzard, a plumber by trade, has been federally licensed to band raptors for more than 30 years. He weighed, measured and took feather samples of each bird, his wife recording the numbers in a notebook. He will send the information to a national bird banding lab in Laurel, Maryland, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He then secured a small metal band to the leg of each, allowing anyone who may handle that eagle again, such as a wildlife rehabilitator, to detail its nest location, age and more. That information not only helps track the population of the once-endangered bird but also aids in studies related to things like nesting behavior and migration.

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For example, a 4-year-old bald eagle rescued from the passing lane of the Pennsylvania Turnpike last December turned out to be a bird Blizzard banded from this same nest. Though it suffered a head injury and bone fractures from hitting a truck, it recovered well and was released in March.

Eagles have used this particular nest near the Yellow Breeches Creek for about eight years, Blizzard said. This eagle mating pair continues to expand the size of the nest as they repair it each season, using everything from sticks, grass and dirt to corn cobs. It's now 4 or 5 feet deep.

Tom Humphrey at the top of the nest 75 feet off the ground.

The nest's sustainability is another example of the eagle's dramatic recovery.

Back in 1983 there were only three active bald eagle nests left in Pennsylvania. For decades, poor water conditions, habitat loss and pesticides ravaged their population.

Stricter environmental laws, particularly banning DDT, set the stage for their nationwide recovery. A reintroduction program, assisted by the Canadian government, helped their numbers rise quickly across the U.S. to the point where they were removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in 2007.

They've recovered so well that the Pennsylvania Game Commission even stopped tracking individual counts four years ago. At the time there were 29 nests reported in York County alone. Officials now suspect there are more than 350 throughout the state.

Even so, their sightings still often create a ruckus.

They are one of the largest birds in North America (females weighing up to 14 pounds), and the adults are unmistakable with their white heads.

They conjure feelings of patriotism and reverence. They are majestic fliers and fierce  fishers — despite often opting for road kill or trash picking — and own a grand success story.

So word gets out fast when they hang around. About 20 locals, mostly kids and parents, gathered last week near the Yellow Breeches to watch the banding. Game commission officials knew it could draw a crowd. So they monitored the proceedings, and even briefly held the birds for picture-takers.

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"Eagles are the gateway species of life," said Patti Barber, a game commission biologist. "Your uncle George who never goes outside and doesn't care about wildlife at all will get excited about bald eagles. They are the best wildlife ambassador you can think of."

Humphrey's nerves, sure enough, still jangle on climbs like this, even though he's been doing it most his life. As a teenager in Maryland he climbed for his uncle, who was a licensed-bander, and he's never stopped.

The full-time carpenter, even at 59, still feels blessed to pull back nature's veil high off the ground, to do what hardly anyone else can. He helps band countless hawks and smaller raptors each year, but eagles remain special, he said, despite their more regular sightings.

"I feel they are the apex predator. They catch what they want to catch. They’re just a powerful, beast of a bird," Humphrey said.

Tom Blizzard holds one of the eaglets while Scott Brookings weighs the other. Information about each bird, including DNA testing, is documented on each bird.

Baby bald eagles return to the nest

After about 10 minutes on the ground, each baby was placed into the camouflage bag and slowly roped skyward. Humphrey placed them gently back in the nest. They figure to gain strength and confidence for another six weeks before leaving for good.

They won't, however, mature into their famous white-feathered heads and tails for nearly four years.

For now, they still need a lot of help.

As the evening sun dipped, their mother soared into view from behind farm fields and faraway trees.

She returned to her duty without a sound.

Frank Bodani covers sports and outdoor stories for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.