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Into the Raptor’s Nest

Up close and personal with nature’s most ­powerful birds

Craig Koppie is an expert on raptors like this adult bald eagle being banded at Blackwater National Wlidlife Refuge. <<photo by Kennon Smith>>

His talons are long. This six-week-old osprey already has the equipment he needs to fend off foes. But biologist Craig Koppie goes barehanded into the nest.
    For Koppie, working with raptors has been a passion since he was a boy.
    “I come from a family of pilots,” Koppie says. “Everybody has some kind of thrill for flying or fondness for nature, and I’ve been fascinated with flight ever since I knew about airplanes. Instead of piloting planes, some of us fly as biologists.”
    Koppie’s passion started with bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. At 14 years old, he began climbing trees; at 16 years old, he entered his first hawk nest.
    Now Koppie works as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, spending much of his time tagging the birds, photographing them, tracking their growth and doing tests to determine their health.
    With 40 years experience working with raptors through the Chesapeake Bay Bald Eagle Banding Project and other endeavors, Koppie is an expert. He has co-authored three books on bald eagles and osprey with Salisbury University Professor Teena Ruark Gorrow.
    Their first book, Inside a Bald Eagle’s Nest, came out in 2013. Last year, they released Inside an Osprey’s Nest, documenting the 2015 growth of two foster chicks through Chesapeake Conservancy’s Osprey Cam.

    Their newest book, Mr. President and The First Lady, details the bald eagle pair nesting at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. They did this book in cooperation with the American Eagle Foundation; like the others, it is available from Schiffer Publishing.
    Featuring photography by both Gorrow and Koppie, all three books take you into the secret world of raptors. “The books give people the opportunity to hold” the birds, Koppie says.
    A rare close encounter with a bald eagle turned Garrow into an expert.
    “I vividly recall that icy, winter morning when an American bald eagle suddenly appeared beside our vehicle as my husband and I were driving down a country road,” Gorrow says. “I was awestruck.”
    She learned everything she could about bald eagles and eventually osprey, documenting the birds through notes and photographs. “I felt a strong desire to share what I was learning with others,” Gorrow says.
    Working with raptors invites danger. To enter a bald eagle’s nest, for instance, Koppie must scale some of the tallest trees in Chesapeake Country. Reaching the nests can take hours.
    “These are trees cited in 1940s’ historical documents,” Koppie says. “These are trees that take four people hand-in-hand to go around.”
    So Koppie makes safety his number-one priority. He always climbs tethered to the tree at two attachment points. Free climbing would be easier, and he has been tempted. But he has resisted. “Injuries happen when you become complacent,” he says.
    The nests hold their own dangers. Raptors’ beaks are not so threatening as their talons, so in preparing to band the birds, Koppie secures their talons first.
    When reaching into a nest, he distracts a young eagle with one hand while extending the other. Osprey chicks are easy to capture because they lay flat in the nest, playing dead at the sight of an intruder.
    It’s not the young that Koppie is wary of.
    About 10 years ago, he was hit by an adult peregrine falcon, a bird known for aggression, speed and precision. Koppie was banding chicks and returning them to their nest when the mother struck him by the side of the head, splitting his eyelid.
    Koppie doesn’t fault the birds their protective nature. “After raising your own kids, you can see what’s involved as far as parents taking care of their young,” he says. “It’s natural. They have the same traits that we do as humans.”
    While banding, Koppie notes, it’s best to wear a helmet and safety eyewear.
    Some of Koppie’s studies require capturing adult raptors, which can be difficult.
    Adult osprey are easiest to catch as they are rarely aggressive. Koppie places a dome of hardware cloth, which snags the bird’s talons, over the nest.
    Catching other birds requires ingenuity and precision. When banding falcons, Koppie wears a welder’s glove and allows the bird to grab hold with her talons. Then he slips a hood over her head to pacify her.

    To catch an eagle, Koppie and his colleagues set a ground trap of deer or duck carcass. When an eagle lands on the carrion, they use leaded projectiles to propel a huge net — 60 feet by 40 feet — over the bird. He has caught dozens of wintering bald eagles this way.
    Golden eagles are the most elusive as there are so few in Chesapeake Country. In the six years Koppie has monitored golden eagles, he has only captured 10.
    Despite the challenge, Koppie is undeterred. “This is my passion,” he says. “If I could fly with them, I would.”
    There are protective guidelines for dealing with osprey and eagle nests on your property: www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/FAQs.html.