When Bernie Kole built his home on Distant Island in 2007, he didn’t realize the marsh view came with a national treasure.
But he did notice this summer when the bald eagles’ nest he had watched for years on nearby Cane Island disappeared.
“For us, it was one of the real joys of being at Distant Island,” Kole said, listing off all the surrounding wildlife. “... We appreciate being able to see such natural beauty.”
He groused about it for a few months before his concerns reached the ears of a neighbor, who realized the removal of the nest, and the tree it was in, might be a federal offense. Kole said the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and federal investigators have been down to interview residents and to examine the site.
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DNR Lt. Michael Paul Thomas said the report is being examined, but no information will be released until the investigation is completed.
He said DNR officials have met with an attorney for the landowner, residents and other concerned parties and have some remaining meetings before the investigation will close. Thomas said it is unknown what type of charges, if any, will be levied.
“The landowner, the family and the developer are as saddened and surprised as the rest of the community and are working 100 percent with the authorities,” said John Trask III on behalf of the trust of Flora G. Trask, the property owner.
Trask said they were not aware of the nest before the tree was removed.
DNR wildlife biologist Charlotte Hope, who monitors the birds, said the penalties for damaging a nest or harming eagles can be stiff, including tens of thousands of dollars in fines and jail time. Both the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act apply. The acts prohibit endangering bald eagles and damaging or removing a nest, among other restrictions.
However, since eagles are no longer endangered, there is some flexibility to allow nearby construction during non-nesting season, Hope said.
“I want people to realize that they’re still protected,” Hope said. “People think that since they were taken off the endangered list, they’re not protected, but that’s not true.”
Kole said he has talked with Trask, but has questions about how a nest of that size could go unnoticed and the tree allowed to be cut down.
According to Hope, nests are at least six feet wide and big enough to hold two young eagles and an adult. The young eagles can be nearing full size when they leave. Adult eagles are about 26 inches tall, weigh six pounds and have a wingspan of six feet. Nests can, over time, become as big as a small car.
“If nothing else comes out of this, I want the public to know they can’t remove, damage an eagle’s nest, and you certainly can’t cut down the trees,” Kole said.
DNR first learned about the nest in February 2012 when a Distant Island resident reported it, Hope said. Based on the resident’s report, DNR believes the nest has been there since at least 2007, she added.
Statewide monitoring of eagles’ nests ended in 2007 but partially resumed in early 2014 when funding became available for Hope to do flyovers of nesting sites. When she saw the nest in February, the adults were brooding, or standing over very young chicks.
Mating eagles will return annually and continue building up the same nest, she said. On rare occasions when nests are damaged, the pair will usually rebuild nearby.
“They’ll build a new one in the closest appropriate place they can find, because what they’re tied to is not the nest tree, it’s the feeding area,” she said.
A developer, whom Trask would not name, is considering building a residential community on the 220-acre upper Cane Island property. It would include a passive 5-acre waterfront park planned for the area near where the tree once stood. Crews had been clearing the area to expose live oaks, Trask said.
Trask said he intends to work with DNR, residents and the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw to entice eagles to nest in remaining nearby trees.
That includes attempting to help the eagles, which are believed to be in the area, re-establish a nest. Trask said Sea Island Tree Co. will install a platform with branches and a “starter” nest in a tall pine a few yards away from the tree that was cut down.
The tree company did a similar project on the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and Trask said Center for Birds of Prey director Jim Elliott suggested a starter nest may help the eagles.