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Old 08-08-2005, 09:46 PM   #1
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Biologist Working To Protect Bald Eagles In North Carolina
Biologist Working To Protect Bald Eagles In North Carolina

POSTED: 11:58 am EDT August 7, 2005
UPDATED: 11:58 am EDT August 7, 2005

GREENVILLE, N.C. -- Days spent walking through snake-infested swamps is not how Charlotte Matthews' friends envisioned her life.

But the 23-year-old native of Eastland, Texas, says the sometimes rough working conditions she experiences is offset by the knowledge she has a hand in protecting the national symbol.

Matthews is a Greenville-based bald eagle biologist working with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Since the spring she has identified and tracked the nests of bald eagles throughout the state's 34 coastal counties.

"I didn't go to school wanting to do this," Matthews said. "I do feel like this is work that needs to be done and not a lot of importance is given to it."

By identifying and recording the location of eagle nests, the state works with landowners to protect the sites, said David Allen, the wildlife commission's coastal regional faunal diversity program supervisor and Matthews' boss.

"One of our biggest challenges in managing the bald eagle populations is knowing where the nests are," Allen said.

Matthews' job is temporary _ it started this spring and ends in September.

"I believe that every species is important and it's important, as human beings, that is our responsibility to protect other species, because a lot of what we did hurt them," she said.

The bald eagle is a prime example of how human actions nearly drive a species into extinction.

While timber clear-cutting and hunting harmed the state's bald eagle population, it was the use of DDT in the early and mid-20th century to kill mosquitoes and other insects that drove the species to the brink. The chemical weakened the eagle eggshell, killing the chicks before they could hatch.

"From the late 60s to the 1970s, the bird was virtually nonexistent in the state," Allen said. "You would occasionally see an eagle and there were a couple of places where eagles tried to breed, but they were not successful at that time."

It's a heartbreaking scenario because 100 years ago, eastern North Carolina was a haven for the birds, with large expanses of tall pines for nesting and an abundance of large waterways like the Neuse River and Albemarle and Pamlico sounds for the eagles to hunt fish, Allen said.

Starting in 1983, 26 eagle chicks were taken from Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania and brought to Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County to be raised and released into the wild.

From those chicks, it is estimated about 140 adult eagles now fly the state's skies, Allen said.

Getting an exact count is difficult, so biologists measure the health of the population by counting the number of nests and the number of chicks in the nests.

That's where Matthews comes in. She was hired to assist Allen in conducting this year's nest count.

She and Allen started by crisscrossing coastal counties in an airplane to count the nests, which usually are built in tall pines in isolated areas and are hard to see from the ground.

This year 93 nesting territories were identified throughout the state, 15 of which are new. At least 84 chicks statewide grew old enough to fly from their nests. In four to five years, the chicks that reach maturity will begin breeding.

Once the nest sites are spotted, Matthews or Allen takes a general reading of the location with global positioning equipment.

Further pinpointing the location requires a lot of travel. First there is driving to the county where the nest is located. Then, with the aid of global positioning equipment, Matthews finds the right patch of woods. Then she has to find the tree.

On lucky days, she will find a farm path or timber trail that is easy to drive. Sometimes she has to set out in a canoe. Most of the time she has to walk into the woods, where she once encountered a black bear that charged her not once, but twice.

Matthews said she stood her ground and yelled. The bear backed off.

Her first thought was how thrilling it was to finally see a bear.

"I was proud. I was able to handle things," she said. "I was more scared afterwards, when I really got to think about what had happened."

She's also encountered the amazing and beautiful, Matthews said, like finding herself standing 5 feet from a fawn lying in Croatan National Forest; seeing a turkey with her chick and being surrounded by eight baby quail.

Then there are the eagles.

"Every time I see an eagle, I'm just awe-struck," she said. "Eagles are so huge. I always think of them as a big bird, but to see them, they are a dinosaur, they are huge."

Once Matthews identifies the nest from the ground, she uses her global positioning equipment to record its exact location. She then returns to the county tax office, verifies the property owner's name and notifies the person about the nest.

The majority of landowners are excited to learn eagles have a nest on their property, Matthews said. Few worry about the restrictions that are placed in the area to preserve the nest.

The reaction doesn't surprise Allen.

"It's one of those animals that when you see it, you run to tell your family and friends what you saw," he said. "I'm hoping to see the day when people won't run home and tell their friends about what they saw because it will be a common occurrence."

Until that time, Matthews said she will continue working to restore what has been lost and protect what exists.

"I've always loved animals, I've always loved being outdoors," she said.

Matthews said when she entered Furman University, a liberal arts school in Greenville, S.C., she wasn't sure what her career path would be. A class in field biology is where the idea of a wildlife management career started to gel.

"I wanted to work with wildlife, I wanted to work outdoors and I wanted to work with endangered species," she said.

Also, she discovered there is work in the wildlife resources management field if an individual is willing to pick up and move.

And that's what she's been doing.

After graduating in 2004, Matthews interned at a national wildlife refuge in south Texas that focused on the protection of ocelots, a member of the cat family.

Fewer than 100 ocelots live in the United States, although larger populations are found in Central and South America. The U.S. population is facing near extinction because of habitat loss. She and other interns organized a festival to promote greater awareness of the ocelot and raise money for habitat protection.

When that job ended, she made her way to North Carolina.

Bringing in biologists to work in the bald eagle program allows for faster identification of nest locations, Allen said. Without another biologist's assistance, Allen is left to do the work alone, and that can create lags in notifying land owners.

Budget cuts will keep Allen from bringing in another biologist next year.

Matthews said she will ultimately pursue a master's degree in wildlife and fisheries science, focusing on the preservation of ecology. Until then, she will look for another assignment and another chance to help threatened wildlife.

"I've learned a lot," she said. "It's good for me to work on my own because it's given me a lot of responsibility and I like becoming more independent. I've had a lot of fun."


Information from: The Daily Reflector,

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed
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