Ernie O’Toole looks into the camouflaged spotting scope intently, pointing to a tall green cottonwood tree about a mile away.
A mama desert nesting eagle pops up every now and then, feeding at least one of her young nestlings, while the dad eagle flies nearby off the Lower Salt River Recreation area in the Goldfield Breeding Area.
“It’s something to see with the feeding,” said O’Toole, a nest watcher from Colorado who has degrees in biology and ecology. “You see the (mama) bird bite off very gently and reach down to feed (the nestling). It’s really a kick to watch. I love just the kick you get out of seeing these magnificent birds.”
O’Toole is one of 20 nest watchers with the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch program. The nest watchers work in teams of two to monitor, protect and educate the public about this symbolic species.
The watchers are independent contractors who travel from across the country to spend more than 40 hours a week watching, waiting and writing down the birds’ every activity during the nesting season. The nest watchers collect data on where the eagles forage for food, their response to humans, including the tubers along the Salt River, and their behavior.
“The eagles are a symbol of our country,” said O’Toole, 68, a retired aerospace engineer. “For them to come back the way they have is great. They (their population) was really dwindling.”
The bald eagle population has grown more than 600 percent in Arizona over the past 30 years, thanks in part to the Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department spokeswoman.
Arizona has 61 breeding areas, 51 breeding adults and 102 bald eagles, said Kenneth “Tuk” Jacobson, a bald eagle management coordinator with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The nest watchers work 10 days on and four days off, and monitor one breeding area from about February to July, or whenever the young eagles fly from the nest. The nest watchers live in tents or RVs on site.
The goal is to protect the eagles during their most vulnerable time, when the birds are having their chicks and preparing the little ones for their lives away from the nest.
This particular eagle family off the Lower Salt River was breeding later than usual. Although it’s unknown why, the nest watchers said it could be because the female bird took longer to get to know her new mate.
The female eagle’s mate took off last year and was never found, and she had to raise her chick alone, which is uncommon and had never been documented before, said Jean Spilker, a nest watcher with O’Toole. The nestling did survive, she added.
This year, the mama eagle’s nestling hatched April 14, and the new dad is sticking around to help, Spilker said. O’Toole has named him Stealth because he comes and goes in a blink of an eye.
As if on cue, the male eagle flies down to the river, hangs out for a little bit, and then flies back to the tree, hanging out on a branch near the nest.
“He spends a lot of time on that branch,” said Spilker, 39, from Oregon. “He’s an attentive father.”
Seasonal closures of nest areas keep people from disturbing the eagles.
The nest watchers work eight hour days throughout the week, and work from dawn to dusk on the weekends watching the eagles and their nest.
“I’m passionate and committed to trying to save the bald eagles,” said Spilker, who has an anthropology degree and enjoys working with raptors, birds that hunt and kill other animals.
The desert nesting eagle’s protection status has been called into question throughout the past couple of years.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the bald eagles off the Endangered Species Act protection list in 2007, but the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audobon Society sued. The federal court ordered that the state’s desert nesting bald eagle population be put back on the protected list, Jacobson said.
After a review that took two years, the findings released in February said the desert nesting eagles still didn’t qualify to be on the endangered species list as a distinct population segment. Currently, the eagles are still protected, and it’s unsure when that injunction will be lifted, Jacobson said.
However, the injunction is being contested by the Center for Biological Diversity as the group continues to try to protect the desert nesting eagles, which nest in Arizona, he said.
Jacobson stressed whatever is decided won’t change the Arizona Game and Fish’s nest watchers program, and the desert nesting eagles will still be protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act enacted in 1940.