Downtown Orlando Bald Eagle Not Protected Unless He's Nesting

By Mark Baratelli

We told you Friday about the bald eagle living in Ivanhoe Village right where a development called The Yard is about to begin construction.

We reached out to two officials for comment.

Matt Smith, Eagle Watch Coordinator at Audubon Florida (Website) told us that the bird is definitely an eagle and the nest is definitely an eagle's nest. 

He says nesting season is Oct 1 - May 15, so there's potential that nesting activity is occurring in the nest.

Michelle Vandeventer, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Website) Eagle Biologist, was told about the eagle and its nest last Thursday. She works out of Sarasota and wanted to know if the eagles were nesting or perching as well.

It's an important distinction:
  1. If nesting - FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) is going to document it. If something prevents the eggs from incubating, that's a potential violation of the eagle rule. It's nesting season, so it's possible the nesting is occurring. 
  2. If perching - Eagle regulations don't apply to perching. 
It's nesting season currently, so nesting is possible Vandeventer said.

Vandeveter contacted Ulgonda Kirkpatrick, the US Fish and Wildlife Southeast Regional Eagle Biologist, to go to the nest to look at it. Kirkpatrick works in Orlando. Her position covers 4 states. As of Monday she has not given word if she's gone to the nest or not.

How will she determine the different between nesting and perching? If they're nesting you'll see:

  1. two eagles present: a male and female
  2. the eagles bringing in nest material
  3. the eagles getting into the nest, arranging it, lining it
  4. incubating, which has a distinct physical trait
  5. feeding their young 
The nest exam will take between 15 minutes and 4 hours. The minimum observance time is 2 hour, says Vandeventer.

She also said she had no comment on the City of Orlando's "Urbanized Disturbed Land" designation meant that the developers weren't required to do an Environmental Assessment. 

Audubon Florida was unaware the designation even existed.

"I would think that would be part of an assessment they would need to do, to include how it would impact wildlife in the area," says Smith.

City of Orlando's "Urbanized Disturbed Land"

If the nest is found to contain eagles that are nesting (versus perching), FWC will formulate guidance for the contractors on how to minimize the impact of the project on the nest based on Florida Bald Eagle Management Plan Guidelines. That guidance would most likely say, according to Smith, that the developer should begin demolition farther away from the nest on the property and then work their way towards the nest.

Possible outcomes:

  1. If the developers follow the FWC's advice and the eagle still leaves the nest, the developers won't be held accountable.
  2. If they don't take FWC's advice and act as if the nest isn't there, then the developers open themselves up to a prosecution based on Florida's Bald Eagle Rule. 
  3. If they don't follow the advice given by FWC, and if they don't have a permit, so long as the eagles aren't disturbed and continue to use that tower to nest there, then the developers haven't broken any laws. 
FWC can watch and issue a cease and desist based on observing what is likely to be an imminent violation of the florida eagle rule.

FWC will not have a staff member on site, so how does the FWC observe the construction to ensure the nest isn't disturbed?
  1. If construction is within 660 feet of the nest, the developer is often required to have an environmental or biological consultant present observing the birds to detect any signs of disturbance. The onus, according to Smith, is on the expert to stop the work if disturbance occurs.
  2. If the developer doesn't get an expert to observe the nest, FWC is dependent on Audubon volunteers or concerned citizens. "(The FWC) can't be everywhere," Smith says. Audubon will have a volunteer present while the construction is going on, though not every day. 
  3. If citizens see some nest disturbance or nest abandonment or what they think is a wildlife disturbance: call FWC wildlife alert hotline: 888-404-3922. FWC wildlife law enforcement will examine the situation. 
Why didn't Audubon Florida and FWC not know about the nest?
  1. FWC: Eagles make new nests all the time says Smith. If it's not in an area FWC is surveying, they wouldn't find it. Each section of the state gets surveyed every three years. 
  2. Audubon Florida: Audubon's information is based on FWC's information. That's where their nest database starts. Audubon Florida goes out on their own and finds and reports new nests every year and pass that information on to FWC. 
A lot of animals adapt to urban setting. Smith said the bald eagle could be "one of the poster children" of this phenomenon. In Pinellas County, he says for example, a majority of bald eagles nest in cell towns and other artificial structures versus natural structures. 

According to Vandeveter, 85% of bald eagles nests are on natural structures.