California Department of Transportation
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By John Robin Witt
Editor, California Transportation Journal

D-2This story is not about humankind’s first landing on the moon. It concerns humans watching over and protecting the nest of two American bald eagles (Patriot and Liberty), who in recent years have raised several broods in a welcoming cottonwood in downtown Redding, about 190 miles north of Sacramento.

It’s also about Caltrans and concerned Redding community members who took the adult eagles under their wing and then literally watched their eaglets hatch, thrive and fledge from their aerie in this city of 110,000 people. The issue arose because the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) required Caltrans to monitor the eagles as part of the environmental phase of a major construction project now underway in Redding.

eagletsThe story of Patriot and Liberty began as early as 2004 when they established a nest at Turtle Bay on the Sacramento River – a good location, since about 90 percent of a bald eagle’s diet consists of fish. DFG scientists have been keeping an eye on the parents and various offspring ever since. The public later gave the pair their names via an online poll.

However, a simmering situation began to boil in 2007 when Caltrans began construction on the $64 million Dana to Downtown Project, one of the largest transportation improvements in the seven-county District 2, situated in the largely rural section of northeast California. The project, scheduled for completion in early 2011, is intended to relieve congestion on State Highway 44 between Interstate 5 and downtown Redding. Once completed, it will improve westbound access to the city’s center, replace a bridge over the Sacramento River and create a new bicycle path.

DFG required Caltrans to monitor the eagles to determine whether construction was affecting the eagle’s nesting activities. At first, a team of biologists physically monitored the birds, concerned that construction cranes and building activity would disturb the raptors. In fact, DFG officials asked Caltrans to encourage the birds to nest elsewhere. Caltrans responded by placing a large, black cone over the nest and building another nest about two miles downstream

flightPatriot and Liberty were undeterred, as they dive-bombed the interloping plastic cone in an attempt to knock it from their rightful perch. The cone was removed, and Patriot and Liberty soon became parents to hatchlings, Conehead and Freedom.

Caltrans decided that during the 2008-2009 nesting season, a video camera would be installed as a more efficient way to monitor the eagles, and that the video would be streamed to the public via the Web. Moreover, the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, a museum located adjacent to the project and nest, agreed to house the equipment necessary for the video and to put the broadcast live on its Web site.

Hence, the “eagle cam” was born, attracting nearly 1.2 million “hits” between December 1, 2008, and May 30, 2009, according to the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. Unfortunately, the broadcast feed suffered problems almost from its conception. The equipment was not “hard-wired,” and its signals were easily blocked by foliage and treated roughly by Shasta County’s weather. The system began to deteriorate seriously at the very time the pair, despite the cacophony of construction, produced three eggs (which ornithologists consider a rare occurrence). The public dubbed them Freedom, Hope and Spirit.

However, the public was concerned about another development. The “eagle cam” went kaputt in June 2009, about the time the eaglets were scheduled to leave the nest. In frustration, bird-watching eagle enthusiasts organized two “fledgefests,” gathering near the aerie with binoculars to watch the fledglings leap from branch to twig and back in a nervous preflight exercise. As one Redding resident described the countdown to liftoff, “It’s like watching a movie or reading a book and getting to the exciting part, and, all of a sudden, you lose your book or the cable goes out.”

Thereafter, Caltrans decided to upgrade the monitoring equipment, employing a brief window of opportunity between the eagles leaving their nest for the season and returning in the autumn to start a new family. A new camera was installed and hardwired by fiber optic cable to the Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

Moreover, the City of Redding assisted with a $15,000 grant specifically intended for eagle education. During the summer of 2009, Caltrans completed the major camera upgrade, just in time for the eagles’ return in October.

ed.aIn early December, Caltrans and the community held an “Eagle Camera Premiere” at Turtle Bay in celebration of the improved camera and fiber optic cable designed to stand up to Northern California’s uncompromising winter climate. The effort is an excellent example of collaboration among Caltrans, the City of Redding, and the Turtle Bay Exploration Park.

The Dana to Downtown Project is scheduled for completion in early 2011, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “eagle cam” will go black any time soon. In fact, officials hope the new equipment will be operable for a quarter century, and continue to capture the lives of the Redding eagles for generations to come.

Due to protection by federal and state governments, the bald eagle’s population is now considered stable, and in 1995 the United States officially reclassified the birds from “endangered” to “threatened”. In 2007, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered and threatened wildlife list altogether. The State of California considers both bald and golden eagles as fully protected species.

For a virtual tour of the nest, including State Highway 44 in the background, visit Caltrans District 2’s Web site: http://www.dot.ca.gov/dist2/eagles.htm, or Turtle Bay Exploration Park at http://www.turtlebay.org/.