Myth is Reality: Discovery of Bald Eagles Nesting in a Saguaro Confirms Longtime Speculation

PHOENIX – For eight decades, biologists have speculated that bald eagles build their nests in large saguaros.

This week, that speculation became reality.

The Arizona Game & Fish Department on Wednesday announced the discovery of the first bald eagle nest in a saguaro since before World War II.

“It was absolutely amazing when I got the first report,” said Kenneth Jacobson, raptor management coordinator for the department. “When we were able to get out there and see (the nest) from the ground and verify it was quite exciting.”

The nest was first reported by a member of the public, and Game & Fish flew over to confirm the report. Biologists say there are two bald eagles and an unknown number of eaglets in the nest, which is near a central Arizona reservoir.

“This is something biologists in Arizona have been aware of the possibility since the 1970s,” Jacobson said. “We’ve been looking for them, so finally finding one and seeing one is quite amazing since it’s been on our radar for a very long time.”

The only other record of a saguaro nest was in 1937, Jacobson said. In the 1970s, biologists found a mention to Kermit Lee of Lee’s Trading Post, who had reported large nests in saguaros along the lower Verde River.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on large saguaros for decades,” Jacobson said. “But all the ones that were seen with large nests had no documentation of egg laying or raising of young or any information like that.”

The department won’t disclose the location of the nest to protect the birds and their habitat.

“This is one of those things that is pretty exciting, but the last thing we want to do is draw a lot of attention to it,” Jacobson said. “If we get a lot of people coming out and checking it out we may end up inadvertently causing problems for their nesting attempts.”

The years of speculating are finally over for biologists like Jacobson, and confirmation is as thrilling as he expected.

“It’s been an 18-year trek for me, keeping my eye out for a bald eagle nest in a saguaro, so finally finding one is amazing,” Jacobson said in the department’s press release.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Arizonans keep watchful eyes on bald eagles nesting near humans

RIO VERDE – Across Arizona, humans are keeping a sharp eye on bald eagle nests that are close to areas with high recreational traffic. As part of a program run by the Arizona Game & Fish Department, these nestwatchers monitor the behaviors of the eagles and make sure their treetop and rock ledge nests are safe.

The Arizona Bald Eagle Nestwatch Program began in 1978 as a volunteer organization to monitor breeding bald eagles. Today, the program is so popular people are on waiting lists, and the watchers get paid to do the job.

Wildlife officials say the program and other efforts to protect our national symbol are paying off: There now are eight times as many bald eagle nests as there were in 1978.

“This is a project that I am enjoying a lot, and I want to do it for many years,” said Eduardo Martinez, who has been an Arizona nestwatcher for five years.

Martinez and his wife are watching a pair of eagles nesting about a 10 minute walk into the desert near Box Bar Recreation Area in the Tonto National Forest, near Bartlett Lake.

“I love this place. I’ve been to several places, and several nests all over Arizona,” said Martinez, who comes to Arizona from Mexico yearly to watch the eagles. “And this place, I think, has the most diversity.”

Nestwatchers start in February, keeping an eye on 10 to 15 breeding areas that are in busy recreational areas. In some breeding areas, including sections of the Verde River, areas have been closed so nests aren’t disturbed.

Arizona has close to 90 bald eagle breeding areas, according to Game & Fish. The agency notes on its website that nestwatchers can help identify eagles that are in life threatening situations so biologists can help.

The watchers work 10 days in a row, spending those days and nights near the nests to keep close watch. They spend their time talking, reading and, of course, watching the birds.

“By having the nestwatchers here, we’re able to figure out what might be causing problems and make sure that we’ve got management on the ground, and recreators that understand the proper way to recreate in an area where you might have a bald eagle’s nest just right behind you,” said Kenneth Jacobson, who’s the bald eagle management coordinator with Arizona Game & Fish.

Nestwatchers spend so much time with these birds they start to pick up on personality traits. Martinez said 2019 was a “complicated” year for the bald eagles he watched. Food was scarce, and one of the fledglings died.

Kenneth Jacobson, who’s a bald eagle management coordinator with the Arizona Game & Fish Department, trains a telescope on a bald eagle nest. He says there’s been “significant growth” in Arizona’s bald eagle population since 1978, when there were only 11 breeding pairs in the state. (Photo by Isabella Hulsizer/Cronkite News)

“That’s nature,” Martinez said. “But because we put names on them and we were really attached to them, one of them dying was a really sad moment for us.”

Martinez said he’s still debating whether to name any fledglings that hatch this year.

Last year, the breeding season was equivalent to a soap opera at a nesting site near Lake Pleasant – and thanks to a remote camera set up by Game & Fish, the public got to watch.

First, a rival ousted a male and bred with the female, who laid three eggs – all of which were eaten by ravens and ringtail cats. There was hope for the fourth egg, but the mother destroyed it, perhaps because she sensed an abnormality, Game & Fish said.

A breeding pair has returned to Lake Pleasant this year, and they’ve built a new nest high up on a rocky ledge. The first clutch of eggs was lost to predators, likely ravens, but Arizona Game & Fish said there’s still time for another clutch.

Jacobson said overall the bald eagle population in the state continues to climb.

“Back in 1978, when bald eagles were listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act, we only knew of 11 breeding areas in the state,” Jacobson said. “Now, in 2020, we’ve got 90 breeding territories across the state. There’s been a significant growth in the population.”

Last year, Game & Fish said 71 eagle eggs hatched, down from 87 in 2018.

The department expects this year’s eggs to hatch about the end of March and early April, and it will tag the fledglings. In three to four years, the birds will be ready for their own breeding season.

Game & Fish has a 24/7 live stream of the bald eagle nest at Lake Pleasant, but it’s not as close as last year’s camera because of the nest’s location.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.