Zoo scientist rappels down 70-ft. cliff to help eagle chicks

July 17, 2014 - 9:36am

U.S. Fish and Wildlife study aims to assess lead levels in golden eagle nestlings

Jeremy Buck needed assistance — someone who could zip halfway down a sheer 70-foot cliff, pluck a few items from his utility belt and quickly draw blood samples from a nestful of squawking eagle chicks.

And since no superheroes were available, he called on someone closer to home: mild-mannered conservation scientist David Shepherdson of the Oregon Zoo.

Buck, a contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been investigating lead in nestling golden eagle chicks to determine whether their parents might be bringing home lead-tainted prey items for breakfast.

Obtaining that information has been no easy task. Golden eagles nest in high-up, hard-to-reach places like treetops and cliff sides. To reach the nests, field technicians must either rappel down or climb up — and they need to be quick about it since adult eagles will fly off, leaving their chicks unattended until the human visitors have left.

Dr. Shepherdson, a conservation scientist at the Oregon Zoo with extensive mountaineering experience, was an ideal candidate to help. In his zoo life, Shepherdson works to save imperiled Northwest species like western pond turtles and Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits. In his spare time, he has scaled Peru's 22,000-foot Huascarán, raced up Mount Rainier in 5.5 hours and climbed Mount Hood at least 30 times.

"We've worked with the zoo on a number of conservation issues, including the California Condor Recovery Program, and I knew David, like myself, was a climber," Buck said. "He helped us get samples from nine chicks at some very hard-to-reach nest sites and climbed into five of our most difficult nests to get into. We were short on climbers at the time and we needed to get into some nest sites while we had an opening in the weather. His help was very timely and allowed us to exceed the targeted number of nest sites we wanted for the study."

For the study, Buck and his team have obtained blood samples from more than 100 golden eagle chicks at 60 nest sites in central and eastern Oregon. None of the samples has been tested yet, but he expects to have results by December.

Along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, partners in the research project include the U.S. Geological Survey, the Oregon Eagle Foundation and the High Desert Museum.

Photos courtesy Jeremy Buck/ USFWS