BONITA SPRINGS — The bald eagle, a symbol of the United States, has become for some in Bonita Springs a reason to oppose plastic grocery bags.
One such bag was trapped for months, fluttering in a tree above an eagle nest.
That noise created enough of a disturbance to delay nesting for several weeks, one scientist believes.
“Lots of things disturb eagles,” said Mike Kirby, the city’s environmental specialist. “They are very sensitive. If things disturb them, they can abandon a nest, stop courting.”
Eagles nest between October and May. The birds that usually mate for life return to the same nest year after year. If one is blown down, Kirby said, the pair typically build another nearby.
Kirby asked that the location of the latest nest not be made public. He said the last time an eagle’s nest site appeared in a story people disturbed it, causing eagles to abandon an eaglet in its nest.
Since 1997, as far as the records trace, eaglets have fledged from the nest almost every year, Kirby said.
Kirby, who monitors eagle activity for the city, saw few signs of life in the nest for months as the bag stuck stubbornly in the pine, acting as a sort of scarecrow.
“It was blowing in the wind and rattling,” Kirby described. “You could almost hear it from 300 yards away.”
About two weeks ago, Kirby returned to the nest expecting to see the plastic bag and an empty nest.
But the bag was gone, he said, and in the nest was one eaglet.
“Which was a surprise,” Kirby said. “The eagles didn’t appear to be sitting on an egg. It was just kind of vacant most of the time.”
Eaglets hatch about 33 days after eggs are laid, so it’s likely the egg was laid while the bag was still haunting the tree. Kirby said the eagles may have grown tired of waiting.
“They probably just learned to live with it,” said Lynda White, EagleWatch coordinator for Audubon of Florida. “Once that urge to reproduce kicks in, it pretty much overrides everything.”
White said some eagles are more sensitive than others. While some can nest near airports or construction sites, others can be disturbed easily by human activity.
Eaglets can thrive after having hatched late in the season, White explained, but their survival rate tends to be lower than those that hatch in January.
“It should be OK,” White said. “It just makes it a little developmentally delayed.”
The eaglet will get its feathers later, leave the nest later and fly north later than other eagles born this year.
For Kirby, this eaglet represented another reason to address plastic grocery bags that also have found their way to gopher tortoise burrows and the bellies of sea turtles.
It’s his belief that they should either be biodegradable and easier to recycle or a fee should be imposed on those who wish to use them.
“These plastic bags are the scourge of environmentalists,” Kirby said.
After Kirby informed the city of what he’d witnessed in the nest, City Manager Gary Price notified City Council.
He said he thought bills to restrict or eliminate the bags were dead but some news reports made him think there may be some movement in Tallahassee on the issue.
Local municipalities, such as Bonita Springs, have no authority to enact its own ban.
A Florida Department of Environmental Protection report to the state Legislature released in February outlined a dozen alternatives in dealing with the bags, including a ban, a tax or an educational campaign.
It’s milder than a draft report last year that called for weening consumers off the bags by charging escalating fees over several years.
“We’ve got proof positive right here in Bonita of an American bald eagle being affected by a plastic bag,” Price said.
Americans used almost 90 billion single use bags in 2003, the report said. About 12 percent of plastic bags were recycled.
__ Connect with Tara E. McLaughlin at www.naplesnews.com/staff/tara-mclaughlin/