Soaring with Opportunity, the UMD Bald Eagle Research Program has Helped Revitalize the Population and Remove Bald Eagles from the Endangered Species List

Young bald eagle

Image Credit: Rachel Eberius

September 6, 2018 Samantha Watters

"There is nothing quite like scaling a 70 foot tree with nothing below you, climbing up to the nest and poking your head in to see a young eagle looking back at you," says UMD eagle research program student Rachel Eberius, the 46th student to receive an advance degree coming out of the program. Led by Professor Bowerman, the first of 46 to receive an advanced degree through this program and its founder at UMD, the thriving 32-year eagle research program now boasts a new fellowship as one of only six sites available for the prestigious Eagle Scouts World Explorers Program. This unique research experience involves a combination of leadership, lab work, field work, wildlife tracking, and even intense climbing, all while providing deep knowledge on the country's national bird, no longer on the endangered species list thanks largely to program data on population health and toxins.

Bald eagles are the only eagle unique to North America. It is believed that there were as many as 500,000 bald eagles in the US in the 1700s. This got as low as 500 nesting pairs at one time, but is now back up to over 10,000 nesting pairs in North America.

Originally starting in 1961, the Michigan Bald Eagle Biosentinal Project is now led by Bowerman. Dr. Jim Sikarskie, Wildlife Veterinarian at Michigan State University, worked with Bowerman when he joined the team in the 80s to develop innovative techniques for assessing chemical concentrations in blood and feather samples.

“When I first started this work in the 80s, we didn’t know if the bald eagle would survive,” says Bowerman, now Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at UMD. “Banning chemicals like DDT is why we have these eagles around now. We have protected habitats and used these data to change policy.”

The chemicals in the blood or feathers of an eagle are readily used to determine the concentrations in the surrounding aquatic ecosystems and waterways, since eagles are at the top of the food chain and constantly consuming fish and aquatic wildlife. “Bald eagles are a great indicator for overall ecosystem health,” explains Bowerman. “On shore lines and in the great lakes, contaminants in the eagles were six times greater than for the land sites. We are even seeing the effects of climate change with eagles getting smaller and nesting earlier because of warmer weather. Things people are seeing we thought would take generations to manifest, and it’s not.”

The eagle program not only provides critical data on toxin build up and ecosystem health, but it provides a unique educational experience that it is now one of only six available fellowships in the world for the National Eagle Scout Association’s World Explorers Program, pairing eagle scouts with unique educational experiences as they enter their college careers in biological and environmental sciences.

As part of the program as explained by Eberius, you spend eight-and-a-half weeks each year “living out of a duffle bag and on the go” over the summer in Michigan tracking, banding, and gathering samples and data from eagles. “You do everything -  it’s a great leadership role,” says Eberius. “During the school year, you don’t necessarily have a ton of say in what goes on in the classroom, but in the eagle program, you are in charge. You are giving the orders, talking to the public, hiring people, running lab samples, and in the field or in trees. It wasn’t what I expected to get out of grad school, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Eberius hosts an instagram account dedicated to eagle pictures and videos of her travels in the program, @roamwithrae. She was very excited to get off the ground after the first year in the program, and this past summer she climbed to the tops of trees to band eagles every day she was there. “I know I’m a daredevil - I’m up for doing anything,” says Eberius. “Sometimes you’ll be climbing and everything hurts and you are like why do I do this? But then you get to the nest, and you see the baby eagle, and the views are awesome. Then you go, oh ya, this is why.”

As Bowerman explains, it takes a very specific kind of student to do this work and be successful. He says he looks for a combination of academic performance, organization, and common sense in his prospective students. "I would put my eagle students up against anyone in land navigation after a year of eagle study," says Bowerman. “To see so many young people thrive in this field and continue to mentor more and more to benefit the health of the eagle population has been really incredible.”

See the team in action in Michigan here: