by Joni Astrup
High above Bailey Point Nature Preserve in Elk River, in the upper reaches of an old cottonwood tree, bald eagles are nesting once again.
It’s an annual rite of spring that was made possible this year thanks to a group of volunteers.
Five local men – Eric Toth, Dave Anderson, Bruce Dalchow, Mike Niziolek and Charlie Naig – and two employees of Great River Energy – Keith Grassel and Grant Hess – joined forces in January to re-establish a nesting site for the eagles after their original nest fell down in a winter storm.
Now, the eagles are back and have been observed feeding young in the new nest.
“It’s fulfilling. It’s rewarding. It’s a wow,” said Toth, who lives by Bailey Point and was instrumental in the effort to re-establish the nest. “Bailey Point Nature Preserve would not be the same without a pair of nesting American bald eagles.”
Bald eagles have been nesting at Bailey Point since 2009. Jim and Mary Ernhart, whose home overlooks the park, remember watching from their third-floor office window as the eagles built their nest that first year.
Some of the nesting material came from their property.
“I was sitting in the office and all of a sudden the eagle swooped in and took a branch off of our oak tree that was right outside our window,” Mary recalled.
Two young fledged from the nest the first year, she said.
The eagles continued nesting there each year, including in 2013 when the city established Bailey Point Nature Preserve. The site is located at 1 Morton Avenue, at the confluence of the Elk and Mississippi rivers just west of downtown.
But trouble arrived in late December of 2016, when high winds are believed to have toppled the nest.
Toth emailed others about the demise of the nest on Jan. 1, in which he wrote: “The unforgettable eagle’s nest in Bailey Point Nature Preserve no longer exists. I assume the recent strong winds blew it down.”
Dave Anderson, a member of the Elk River Parks and Recreation Commission and longtime parks volunteer, wrote back and suggested the nest be put back up.
A plan soon began to take shape, with the blessing of Elk River Mayor John Dietz and The Trust for Public Land, which has a conservation easement on Bailey Point.
Dietz said Anderson and Toth told him it was worth a shot to try to rebuild the nest, and he couldn’t have agreed more.
“It would have been a tragedy to lose this eagle nest,” Dietz said. “It is nature at its finest and it has been a big attraction at Bailey Point Nature Preserve for a long time.”
To re-establish the nest, the volunteers designed a nesting platform and spent hours trying to determine the best spot for it. Ultimately they decided to put it back in the same cottonwood tree, but in a slightly different and more stable location.
GRE donated the use of a 120-foot boom truck and two employees to help place the platform in the tree.
On Jan. 26, GRE’s Grassel and Hess arrived with the truck. Toth, accompanied by Hess, went up in the bucket to secure the nesting platform, attach it to the tree and place some sticks in it. Once it was in place, Anderson went up in the bucket with some branches, grass and rabbit fur from the original nest and placed them on the platform.
Two days later, the moment they had hoped for arrived: The eagles began rebuilding a nest on the platform.
The eagles had been seen in the area earlier trying to re-establish a nest, but were unsuccessful because the branches kept blowing down. With the new platform, the eagles began nest building in earnest on a stable site.
Toth believes the eagle egg or eggs hatched in the new nest around April 8. He and other neighbors have been watching the eagles feeding young for a couple of weeks, but haven’t yet been able to determine the exact number of eaglets in the nest.
Others have been by to watch the activity, too, and have recorded their thoughts in a notebook that Toth’s wife, Elizabeth, put out in an observation area near the nest. She also left a pair of binoculars for people to use.
Dietz, meanwhile, said he can’t say enough about the volunteers who worked on the project.
Both he and the crew who made it happen are happy the eagles are nesting successfully.
“Obviously the eagles enjoy being in Elk River, and we sure love having them,” Dietz said.
Anderson said: “How many places have an eagle’s nest a quarter mile from downtown? How many places can people just walk up and look at an eagle every day? What cooler thing can you do for a community?”