After more than a month of watching an eagles nest along Highway 99 for signs of eaglets, the Sea to Sky Improvement Project at last hired a crane on June 29 to look directly into the nest.
There were no signs of eaglets or eggs in the nest, despite an earlier expert opinion that there were two, maybe three eaglets being cared for by a nesting pair of eagles that bred successfully in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
Because of the possibility that there might be eaglets, the Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Environment followed procedure and banned all blasting and heavy roadwork within a one kilometre radius of the nest, which is visible from Highway 99 near Horseshoe Bay. The ban was to last until at least Aug. 15, the time by which most eaglets leave the nest.
Now that it has been proven that there are no eggs or young in the nest, the highway contractor and Sea to Sky Improvement Project have applied to the provincial government for the ban to be lifted. The nest falls within a 7 km work zone, and although construction has continued outside of the protected area the ban has been challenging for the contractor and disrupted the original work schedule.
The biologist working for the highway project said from the beginning that he didnt believe there were any eaglets in the nest or that the eagles were exhibiting nesting behaviour, but in the end the Sea to Sky Improvement Project decided to give a concerned group of local residents, that includes several biologists and wildlife experts, the benefit of the doubt while continuing to monitor the site for eggs or eaglets.
"Its a mystery because of all the sightings we had towards the end of June," said Jim Cuthbert, a biologist and one of the founding members of the North Shore Nest Environmental Stewards Team (NEST). "There are several possibilities. One is that there were eaglets in the nest but they were predated upon or fell out of the nest."
There was a violent storm in the area several weeks ago that could have disrupted the nest, and the pair of eagles that have been using the nest have been seen less frequently ever since.
"Theres no sign of the birds on the ground, but they could have fallen and then been picked up by predator," said Cuthbert.
"The other possibility is that there were no eaglets in the nest to begin with, that an error was made reviewing the photographs. But all of these things, plus the fact that adults stayed close to the nest and were known to use the nest to raise eaglets in past years make it very strange."
Less than two weeks ago a bald eagle expert examined photographs taken at the site on behalf of NEST in mid-June and determined that there were two to three eaglets in the nest.
There was a bit of excitement last week when a member of NEST hiked to the location of the tree and found the remains of an immature eagle on the ground. However, an expert at UBC determined that the bird likely died last year, and therefore was probably one of two eaglets that went missing from the nest in 2004.
Despite the fact that there are no eaglets this year, NEST has made a request to the Environment and Transportation Ministries that the ban on blasting and construction be maintained until Aug. 15. While there are no eaglets to disturb, Cuthbert says the site is still sensitive with a pair of falcons, a northern goshawk, and several blue herons using the area, potentially for nesting. In addition, if the pair of eagles are driven off by blasting they may not return to nest the following year.
"This issue with the eagle nest has really drawn attention to this area, and given us an opportunity to point out the other birds in the area that need similar protection," said Cuthbert. "The Peregrine Falcon is particularly vulnerable because there are a lot fewer of them I think just 12 pairs in the whole Lower Mainland."
Once construction starts, NEST also hopes it will wrap up by January, when the eagles should return en route to salmon runs in the Squamish area. The mating season takes place shortly afterwards, in late February or early March.
At press time, neither the Ministry of Transportation or Ministry of Environment had announced a decision regarding the ban.