John Heilferty, a field biologist with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP) for 27 years, has climbed trees since he was a boy, but only started climbing recently as a professional. The Duke Farms eagle nest tree presents quite a challenge.
Find out why — as well as the answer to the age-old question, “What does an eagle nest really smell like?” — in this extensive interview.
Tell us about your childhood.
I climbed trees all the time — even though it was hard to bend your knees in those Sears “Toughskins” jeans when they were brand new.
We moved from the house I first grew up in when I was 9, but I remember an awesome tree in that back yard. It was probably not as tall as I remember it now, but me and my two brothers were up in that tree all the time. I have to give my mom a lot of credit for letting us do some of the crazy stuff we did back then.
She’s gray haired now, of course.
How long have you climbed for the DEP?
This is only my second season doing the tree work for the Bald Eagle Project. Formerly, Program zoologist Mick Valent did all of the ENSP’s tree climbing. But when Mick retired in the fall of 2014, the climbing role was among the many big shoes he left to be filled!
I took over his climbing responsibilities and began getting ready going into the 2015 nesting season.
How rigorous was the training?
In addition to the lengthy and intensive childhood training program, I had also done some modest rock climbing.. So I already had some climbing experience –just enough to recognize that transitioning to true “arborist” climbing was a different thing altogether.
Before my first season climbing nest trees for the Program, I enrolled in a three- day professional arborist climbing course at the Morris Arboretum. That training provided me with an excellent foundation in climbing techniques which I have found invaluable out in the field.
In the end, I’m not sure you could call a history of recreational climbing and three days of formal training “rigorous,” but that and a whole lot of common sense and humility is the sum total of what I brought to the base of the first nest tree.
What was the toughest part?
Climbing in some light rain one day, and in the wet trees when the rain let up. Rain makes every part of climbing a bit more dicey, but the instructors said: “You’re going to have to deal with conditions like this at some point in your career, might as well be now while we’re watching you!”
I was thankful they had pushed us. When we scheduled the Merrill Creek Reservoir nest tree last season, it had rained pretty hard the night before. We always consider cancelling if the weather’s not ideal, but having already experienced climbing in wet conditions, I was confident we could band at that nest safely. We managed to access that nest and banded one wet chick that day.
How much tree-climbing equipment do you have? I seem to recall a lot of amazing ropes and clips…
Yes, there’s a bit of gear involved here! You can certainly work a tree with little more than a rope, a saddle, a safety lanyard and a single carabiner. How much additional equipment you employ is to some extent a matter of personal preference.
Adding more gear to your belt is no substitute for actual climbing skills. But I believe you can dramatically increase how safely, quickly and efficiently you can climb and work from the tree by adding purposeful pieces of equipment.
So whether it is to create redundancy in some safety practice or to have something available to address some of the unique challenges associated with arborist climbing or work positioning, I tend to climb with a variety of gear.
What makes the Duke Farms tree so challenging?
The challenging thing about the Duke Farms nest is that it is out away from the main stem or trunk of the tree. Not an uncommon situation in sycamores, due to the variable, random structure of their trunk and under story.
But it can certainly make accessing the nest location more exciting than we would prefer.
At Duke Farms, the climber has to literally go “out on a limb” a bit to access the nest. And there are no branches out there over the nest where we could tie in a vertical climbing system, which always maximizes fall protection and greatly enhances safe work positioning. So, both getting to and then working from the Duke Farms nest has proven to be difficult. Mick always considered it the most challenging tree the Program regularly climbed.
On top of all that, the banding at Duke Farms is a bit of an “event.” And – oh, by the way – it’s being filmed on the webcam and broadcast live worldwide over the Internet [here]. All of which is great! But it honestly adds a little pressure as well.
I know a lot of folks were disappointed last year when the team decided not to band chicks from the Duke Farms tree. I felt bad about that, but it was absolutely the right call. That would only have been my third or fourth climb last year, and it was best not to push that envelope too soon.
The good news is that since then, I’ve had the experience of climbing a number of other nest trees throughout the state, including another somewhat challenging sycamore in north Jersey.
I was also able to meet up with Charles Barreca of Duke Farms and their site arborist, Jack Kuhlman, last November to climb the Duke Farms nest tree off-season.
They have both climbed the tree before to install and maintain the Eagle Cam, so with Jack in the tree that day spotting me for safety, I was able to get in a dry run at getting out to the nest location. It was definitely a confidence booster, and now I feel like I’ve got that tree figured out.
And being “comfortable” with any climb is the most important aspect of staying safe and being able to transition to the biologist duties that also need to happen up there. So I’m excited to get out there again when the chicks are at 6 weeks and get back up to the nest!
Have eagles ever buzzed you or freaked out?
We’ve never had an adult attempt to harass a climber. As it turns out, Bald Eagles are a whole lot more cautious than – say – Peregrines or Osprey. Being larger-bodied birds, eagles are not really built for that kind of drama, I suppose. Plus, their nests are tucked inside the tree canopy, so there’s really no room for a hair-raising fly by.
I did climb a pine last season where the nest was high enough that one of the adults occasionally circled below me and pretty close to the tree. But they typically circle overhead at height, calling nervously or in disapproval. Or they just leave for a while.
We work very hard to be as quick and efficient as possible to minimize their distress and let the adults get back on the nest.
What do eagle nests smell like?
Sure there’s the usual random decomposing fish head we all leave lying around, the occasional small mammal carcass that the kids just wouldn’t eat, even though it’s good for them.
But it really doesn’t small like all that. Just the pure unadulterated smell of poo.
I actually think one of the coolest things to catch on the Duke Farms Eagle Cam is when one of the chicks starts backing up towards the edge of the nest, hunches its wings, raises tail and sets off the “poo-cannon.” Sorry – some technical biologist terminology there.
That amazing evidence of evolution keeps the nest itself pretty clean, but it covers the adjacent branches that I’m using to access and work from the nest.
Which of course means I go back to the office smelling like eagle … umm … “nest.”
Anything you’d like to add?
Just that I feel unbelievably privileged to work with Supervising Zoologist Kathy Clark, our primary raptor biologist who leads the Bald Eagle Project, as well as NJ Conserve Wildlife Foundation biologist Larissa Smith, ENSP biologist Robert Somes, and Dr. Erica Miller of Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research.
I often joke that “we keep the smart biologists on the ground,” but the evidence largely bears that out. In the end, somebody has to go get some eagle chicks to band, so as long as they keep making it to the ground and back up to the nest again safely, I’m pretty sure the team will keep me on board.
And I appreciate and value the efforts of Duke Farms and the many other conservation organizations who do so much to educate and inspire New Jersey citizens and to advocate for the natural resources they cherish.
The Eagle Cam is a shining example of that excellent work in action.
Got a question or suggestion? E-mail Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Wright writes “The Bird Watcher” columnist for The [Bergen] 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.