Eagle cam latest success for bird preservationist

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DECORAH — As wildly popular as the Decorah bald eagle online sensation has become, its godfather, raptor guru Bob Anderson, will likely be remembered more for his successful efforts to restore peregrine falcons to their historic haunts, Anderson’s friends and associates say.

The live video stream showing the interior of an eagle’s nest, revealing the raptors’ intimate family life to millions of viewers, “is the pinnacle of environmental outreach,” according to Pat Schlarbaum, a biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity program.

But in the long run, Anderson will be remembered more for his pioneering efforts to put falcons back on the Mississippi River bluffs after the pesticide DDT drove them to the brink of extinction, Schlarbaum said.

The eagle cam is “the icing on the cake. The cake is his innovative work to bring back the falcons,” said Bruce Ehresman, another DNR wildlife diversity biologist who worked with Anderson on the project.

“Bob was instrumental in returning peregrine falcons to the mid-continent United States,” said Amy Ries, a longtime colleague with the Raptor Resource Project, the Anderson-founded non-profit organization that sponsors the Decorah nest cam.

In a nutshell, when live falcons were extremely rare, Anderson figured out how to “make” them for the restoration effort, using artificial insemination to breed captive females at his acreage near Decorah.

Anderson’s chicks, released at nest boxes attached to bridges and power plant smokestacks, have produced 1,500 progeny — a decisive factor in the birds’ removal from the endangered species list.

Still, those birds would not “cross over” to the Mississippi River bluffs until Anderson devised a technique in which the chicks were released from simulated rock hack boxes atop a bluff at Effigy Mounds National Monument, imprinting in the brains of the young falcons the concept of cliffs as nest sites.

“The experts said it could not be done — that great-horned owls, the falcons’ arch enemy, were too numerous, that they would eat all the chicks — but Bob persevered, and Bob was right,” said Schlarbaum, whose agency stuck its neck out to partner with Anderson in the enterprise.

While Anderson still keeps up with his falcon monitoring and banding, he spends much of every day in the garage of nest neighbors Willard and Mary Ellen Holthaus, manipulating the pan-and-zoom camera that provides startling high-definition close-ups of the white-headed parents and their three spike-hairdoed chicks.

Anderson also worries incessantly about the impending failure of the tangled mass of wires and computer components that makes the Internet phenomenon possible.

With as many as 150,000 viewers at any one time, Anderson said he feels “a huge burden” to keep the live feed running smoothly.

Nest neighbor Jim Womeldorf, a retired computer programmer who has volunteered to help monitor the system when Anderson is off checking falcon nests, has been a big source of comfort this spring, Anderson said.

At age 60, Anderson still rappels off cliffs and climbs power plant smokestacks to band baby falcons. His battered hard hat has more than 100 hash marks, each one signifying a rappelling outing.

“I never feel more alive than when I go off a cliff,” he said.

When he does so, Anderson is often accompanied by two Raptor Resource Project associates, Ries, 44, of North Branch, Minn., and Dave Kester, 49, of Decorah.

Ries, the project’s webmaster, said Anderson ended his 17-year career with 3M, a multinational corporation based in Maplewood, Minn., to move to Decorah in 1996 to devote his life to the well being of falcons and other raptors.

“He had a dream and believed in it deeply. He has made a difference,” Ries said

To keep the Raptor Resource Project going, Anderson sold the 3M stock that was to have funded his retirement.

“I have no interest in retiring. None,” Anderson said.

He supports himself primarily through a fortuitous raptor management arrangement with Xcel Energy, which generates electricity in Minnesota and other states. “I get paid to put up bird houses,” he said.

Kester said he considers it a “humongous honor” to work with Anderson, which he has done since 1997.

“He invests his mind, body, spirit and economic future in accomplishing his dreams. He’s taken me into a fun, exciting, rewarding world,” Kester said.

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