Finding Balance Between Wildlife and Utility Infrastructure
When PSE&G began planning for its Roseland-Pleasant Valley electric transmission upgrade project, one of the first questions for PSE&G biologists was what to do with an eagle’s nest on one of the towers where a pair of bald eagles had been nesting for more than six years? The 90-year-old steel lattice tower sat along the banks of the South Branch of the Raritan River, and eagles found the location – high away from predators and with access to an abundant food supply – an excellent place to call home.
Saving the nest was our top priority, but the old tower had to be replaced with a monopole structure, which has no flat surfaces that could accommodate the nest. We also had to determine how to handle the nest without damaging it or causing too much stress for the eagles.
Working closely our partners and experts, including the NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife, Endangered and Non-game Species Program, the Migratory Bird Office of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and consulting wildlife biologists from EDM International, PSE&G developed a plan to design a nest platform that could be attached to the new monopole structure to give the eagles an option for a new nesting site.
To accommodate a bald eagle nest, which can be as large as six feet in diameter and weigh several hundred pounds, we designed a 5X5 foot platform with openings in the bottom to allow drainage, and with perches to give the adults a place to watch over their young.
The project team, led by PSE&G Project Manager Joe DiBartolomeo and made up of engineers, construction specialists, permitting specialists and biologists, also developed a plan to carry out construction with as little disturbance as possible to the eagles.
With a detailed plan in hand, PSE&G secured the necessary approvals from USFWS and NJ ENSP to temporarily remove the bald eagle nest from the tower after the eaglets had fledged the nest, store the nest and place it in the specially-designed nest platform on the new monopole.
But this all had to happen before the eagles returned to the area to breed and nest in January, which left us a lot of work to do in a few short months. Despite encountering some pandemic-related and permitting delays that kept us from removing the old tower until November 2020, we remained confident that we could meet the aggressive deadline.
On a chilly November day, the entire top of the old tower with the nest intact was cut from the base and lowered with a crane. Workers carefully removed the nest that was intertwined in the steel lattice and placed it on a board so it could be wrapped in plastic for storage.
Tense weeks followed. The rest of the tower had to be demolished, and then crews went to work drilling the 20-plus-foot deep hole so we could pour a concrete foundation for the new pole.
Waiting for the concrete to cure and meet the required strength tests left us little room for error. Happily, our skilled contractors delivered, and the monopole was erected in sections by December.
On a snowy day in mid-December, just three weeks away from the Jan. 1 eagle timing restriction deadline, the eagle nest was brought out of storage, placed in the nest platform and readied for its journey to its new home atop the monopole.
The platform was lifted slowly by crane to the top of the monopole where crews bolted it in place. A nest cam was installed so that everyone could get a birds-eye view of the action.
Crews cleared out of the area and the wait for the eagles to return began. Weeks went by with no eagle activity whatsoever. Our hopes sagged when a PSE&G environmental monitor observed a new eagle nest being built by the pair in a large tree a short distance away, but then one day in mid-February, adult eagles were observed perching on the tower and adding new sticks to the nest.
PSE&G monitors observed incubation behavior (one adult sitting low on the nest round the clock) and we confirmed the pair had laid eggs on Feb. 25. Success! Unfortunately, during all of the excitement, the nest cam went down and, since the nest was active, there was no way to go to the tower and repair it.
Eagle eggs incubate for 34-36 days, a period in which the adults tirelessly take turns sitting on the eggs round the clock through wind, snow, rain and sleet. By April 2, the adults were off the eggs and we knew they had hatched! This marks the first time that eagles have successfully used a nest platform in New Jersey.
Without the luxury of the nest camera, we had no way of knowing how many eaglets were in the nest. By April 15, the eaglets had grown enough so that we could see the tops of their heads from the ground. There were two!
On May 14, in what has become an annual event, PSE&G Transmission crews climbed the tower to lower each of the 6-week-old eaglets carefully to the ground, where New Jersey biologists and a veterinarian banded them and collected valuable health data and blood samples. The team banded two healthy male eaglets. While the eaglets were being tended to, PSE&G crews fixed the nest cam that, later in the day, showed a happy family reunion. The eaglets have been jumping and flapping their wings preparing for flight. Check them out!
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