Petty’s Island Developer Claims Bald Eagles Moving Out

Wed January 12, 2005 - Northeast Edition

PENNSAUKEN (AP) Two bald eagles that made their home on Petty’s Island appear to be moving out, said a company that wants to develop the island.

Rich Ochab, a spokesman for Cherokee Investment Partners, a Raleigh, NC, group that has Petty’s Island in its plans for a $2-billion redevelopment of a stretch of Delaware River waterfront, said the two eagles have been seen recently building a new nest on the mainland in Camden.

Environmentalists have argued that Cherokee’s redevelopment of the island should be blocked, in part because the island is home to the eagles.

The significance of the new nest in what has become a fight over redevelopment and a strange series of events for the eagles is unclear. Ochab said it was hard to tell whether the eagles will use the nest they are building.

The new nest apparently under construction also is part of the vast swath of Delaware River waterfront in Pennsauken and Camden that Cherokee is seeking to redevelop in projects that would be worth more than $2 billion.

But the new spot along the river in Camden’s Cramer Hill section is envisioned in the company’s plans as a nature area, anyway.

Ochab said it’s too early to say that a move for the eagles’ nest would make it easier for Cherokee to put a golf course and homes on the 392-acre island with a view of the Philadelphia skyline that is now home to a field of oil tanks.

The new nest is in a better place for the birds because it is higher up, in a more stable part of its tree and makes for easier flying in and out, Ochab said.

“Being urban eagles, they’re already accustomed to activity and constant noise,” Ochab said.

But Elmer Clegg, a state volunteer who monitors the Petty’s Island eagles said — and Ochab agreed — that a new nest off the island doesn’t necessarily mean the birds won’t continue to use the island.

Just Tuesday, Dec. 28 — a day before Ochab started telling reporters about the apparent eagle relocation — the two birds sat for hours on a tree in Petty’s Island. An Associated Press reporter watched with Clegg as they sat, then flew off into the distance.

Clegg had not seen the pair for several days before that, though in recent weeks, he said, they had been working on their old nest on the island.

Often, Clegg said, when eagles have trouble raising their young in a nest, they build a new one elsewhere in the territory they inhabit. One pair he watches along the Mantua River in Gloucester County, for example, has had several nests in the past few years.

Last spring, officials put an orphaned eagle into the Petty’s Island nest and took out an egg. The couple that lived there had not been successfully hatching young birds.

In June a tent was found near the base of the nesting tree and the two adult birds and the eaglet known as Maurice were gone.

A few days later, though, the young bird was found by the side of the road, injured. He died en route to a wildlife center. His adoptive parents later showed up again.

The tent, it turned out, belonged to Thomas Curran, a raptor expert hired by Cherokee to monitor the habitat and behavior of the eagles and other wildlife in the redevelopment area as part of Cherokee’s effort to put together a habitat protection plan.

But Curran, a well-known licensed falconer, did not have Citgo’s permission to be on the island.

After he was discovered to have been there, Cherokee fired him.

He’s now facing charges of harassing an endangered species.

“A bird was killed because of it,” Clegg said in a telephone interview. Clegg and other environmentalists have said they believe it was part of Curran’s job to spook the birds from the island. That’s a charge Cherokee, a firm that makes its money by cleaning up contaminated land, denies.

Since then, new Cherokee-employed bird watchers have been tracking the eagles and, by court ruling, have access to Petty’s Island. Clegg said they seem to be keeping their distance from the birds.

Environmentalists have been calling for the land, accessible by a bridge from Pennsauken, to be cleaned up, then preserved as a park rather than being built up as part of a plan Pennsauken officials had been working on for two decades before Cherokee announced earlier this year it would do the work.

Citgo Petroleum, which owns the island, has offered to donate the land to the state.

But state officials have rejected the offer, saying there’s not much environmental merit to preserving it as a natural area.

In December, the Camden-based African-American Commission asked state lawmakers to support preservation of Petty’s Island for history’s sake.

The group said their research indicates Petty’s Island was once used as a Native American trading post and later as a place where Africans being sold into slavery were detained.