Larissa Smith, biologist for Conserve Wildlife Foundation, is in charge of several projects, from leading the effort to monitor dozens of Bald Eagle nests in New Jersey to running CWF's citizen-science project to learn more about the Duke Farms eaglets' diet.
This photo is of Larissa holding an eagle at a banding last week. You can't see her face, but as Larissa explains: "it's an action shot. That's what I look like in the field." Larissa adds: "The eagle is wearing a hood to help calm it down. The eagle booties are new this year. I made them out of my husband's old Carharts. :) They keep the bird from hurting anyone or itself with the talons." We thought you'd like to know more about Larissa, her research and the current citizen-science project at Duke Farms.
When did you first get involved with Bald Eagles and Bald Eagle research?
I started working with the bald eagle project in 2000 when I joined CWF. A large part of my job was to work with the Eagle Project volunteers who monitor the nests. In 2000 there were 23 eagle nests in the state, so I knew each nest and volunteer personally. Now with close to 200 nesting sites being monitored and 70 volunteers, I havent been to all the northern nests. I split the state with ENSP (Endangered and Nongame Species Program) biologist Robert Somes.
How did the idea for the Bald Eagle nest-monitoring project come about?
ENSP & CWF biologists work on many different species. So it was impossible for biologists to monitor each eagle nest as the population grew. Eagle project volunteers report on important dates such and incubation, hatching and fledging. They are also the first ones to see any issues such as disturbance to the nest site. Volunteers are also wonderful educators and our best outreach for eagles. They spend a lot of time at the nest sites and often get asked questions by neighbors and interested people.
Has the new Eagle Cam been a help?
The eagle cam is a great way to see eagle behavior up-close and personal. Many nests are difficult to view and are being seen from a far distance in a scope. Often nest observers can only go on the behavior they are seeing to know the nest has hatched. They might not see the chicks or just a glimpse of a chick until they are bigger. I recommend the Eagle Cam to nest observers so they can see the different behaviors. Since we know the exact age of the chicks in the Duke Farms nest ,we can use them to age chicks at other nests, where the exact hatch date isnt known.
What have you learned or observed so far?
The whole hatching process is fascinating to watch on the cam, since that isnt something that cant be observed when monitoring a nest from the ground.
Any surprises in the monitoring?
As the eagle population is increasing in NJ (which is a great thing), eagles are nesting in areas that in the past wouldn't have been thought of as 'prime" eagle habitat. Some of these nest are close to buildings and roads. We try to head off any conflict between the eagles and people, and in most cases the eagles are embraced by the community and people are very protective of the eagles and their nest.
With the Duke Farms nest, have folks become more aware of the kinds of fish that are brought into the nest because of the diet monitoring?
I believe so since the fish can be identified before they are eaten. Of course the fish being brought to the Duke Farms nest arent typical for all of the eagle nests in NJ. We have some eagles that are getting fish from the ocean, Delaware Bay, Delaware River and inland reservoirs and lakes. So it really depends where the nest is located.
What about the amount of food that's brought in every day -- does it increase as the chicks get older?
As the chicks get older the adults will bring more food and have a stash on hand. As the chicks get older. they will need to eat more food.
Does their diet change as they grow bigger and get a little more able to eat for themselves?
The chicks eat whatever the adults bring to the nest. Once the chicks are able to feed themselves the adults will drop the food in the nest for the chicks.
Is it too late for folks to participate?
I would love to have cam viewers send me their data sheets for the prey items. Its always interesting to see what the eagles are bringing to the nest. (More information on participating is here.) We know what some eagles bring to the nest by nest observer reports or finding prey items when we go out to band an eagle nest. Larissa with an injured eagle in Sept. 2014
What the eagles are eating very much depends on where they are located. Southern NJ eagles love muskrats and terrapins. When other nests arent located close to water and the eagles must travel further for fishing, they have been reported to bring more mammals, groundhogs, rabbits and road kill back to their nest. The Duke Farms eagles' main diet is fish, so if viewers have seen any interesting or different prey brought to the nest they can e-mail me and let me know. A screen grab of the prey is always interesting also.
Got a question or suggestion? E-mail Jim at email@example.com
Jim Wright writes The Bird Watcher columnist for The Record. He is the author of four coffee-table books about wild places, and a deputy marsh warden of the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale, N.J.