MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - An Alabama researcher is finding that many of the state's growing number of nesting Bald Eagles turn to turtles as a food for their nestlings.
Andy Coleman, a biologist with Birmingham Audubon, has been studying the diets of Bald Eagle nestlings and has found that many Bald Eagles in the state are bringing turtles to the nest for their young.
Coleman said that so far, he has looked at 13 nests at sites "stretching from Mobile Bay to the Tennessee River." The study is far from over -- he hopes to add many other nesting sites to his study and to visit them after more than one nesting season. (He also needs access to other nests, including other nests in Central Alabama. See below for how you can help.)
He said that a preliminary conclusion is that "turtles are a dieting item for Bald Eagles, but not necessarily all of them."
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's photos]
This spring Coleman approached me because he had seen photos of Bald Eagles I had published from the Montgomery area, and he hoped to add study sites in Central Alabama. I approached two landowners -- one in the Pintlala area and one near Hope Hull -- who were gracious enough to grant us access to their land for the study. (See photos.)
At the Pintlala nest, Coleman found ample evidence of turtle consumption -- broken shells and bones littering the ground underneath the large tree in which the nest is located. (See photos.)
But at the Hope Hull nest, there was no evidence of turtles. That follows the pattern he has found so far -- turtle consumption at most nests, but not all of them. But that could change as he revisits nests after future breeding seasons. (See photos.)
However, at both Montgomery County nests he found plenty of remains of catfish, obviously a staple of Bald Eagle diets.
"I've found catfish items under every nest I've visited," Coleman said. Diets also include rats, squirrels and small birds.
He has found multiple types of turtles serve as food for eagles, including Common Snapping Turtles, musk turtles, box turtles, pond sliders, and softshell turtles. But they have two things in common; so far, all have been relatively small, not much larger than a man's hand. So size is apparently a limiting factor. And they are picked clean of meat.
Until now, Coleman's study has been limited to close surveying of the area under nests. But he hopes to soon use a drone to take pictures of the inside of nests to see if there are signs of turtles consumption there.
"This would only be done when the nests are not in use," he emphasized. "This is the right time to do it, when there is no chance of disturbing the nesting process."
The entire study focuses on "zero disturbances" to the Bald Eagles during nesting.
The study brings together two of Coleman's passions -- birding and herpetology.
"I hope the study lets us better understand the interaction the two species have with one another," he said. Studies such as this can potentially benefit both management and conservation of the species involved, he said, and "add to our knowledge of the environment in Alabama."
(If you know of a Bald Eagle nesting site anywhere in Alabama, but especially in Central Alabama, drop me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. If the nest is on private land, include the landowner's name and contact information if you have it. Exact location of nests on private land will not be published, and nothing will be done to disturb the nesting process.)
A personal note: I applaud those landowners who protect and cherish Bald Eagle nesting on their land. They are truly a natural resource for the state.
-- The schedule is complete for the 13th annual Alabama Coastal BirdFest to be held Oct. 5-8. The BirdFest has guided trips, speakers, dinners and free activities on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Trips and evening events require advance registration, which opens Aug. 15. For details, see: www.AlabamaCoastalBirdFest.com
-- The Alabama Wildlife Center will hold its fifth annual casino-themed night, Chirps and Chips, where guests can "Bet on the Birds," on Aug. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The evening includes games, live entertainment, a silent auction and a drawing, plus complimentary hors d'oeuvres, wine, and beer. Tickets are $50 and proceeds will support the work of the center. The event is sponsored by Raptor Force, a group of young professionals who support the center, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned native Alabama birds and returns them to the wild. Information at: www.awrc.org