Eagles and drones are not friends in flight, the Maryland Bird Conservation Partnership warns after a recent Pasadena incident.
After a drone pilot was reported to police for bringing his drone close to an eagle and causing another to leave its nest, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maryland Natural Resources police got involved.
Kelly Hunt, a volunteer eagle nest monitor for the partnership, said she was checking on a nest this month next to Fort Smallwood Elementary School when she saw a man send his drone up to the nest.
As the drone approached the nest, the female flew away and a male — presumably the father — flew up to the drone for a few seconds before flying past it.
Hunt warned the man he was disturbing the eagles and they could injure themselves if they attacked the remote-controlled copter. She said he refused to fly his drone away from the nest, saying he was within his Federal Aviation Administration rights.
“I understand how cool it is and the temptation to view what’s going on inside the nest, but not to the detriment of the eagles,” Hunt said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said an agent contacted the drone pilot, who said he wasn’t aware he was doing anything wrong and agreed not to fly in that area again. The agent “opted to provide basic education,” the spokesman said.
Chris Eberly, director of the Annapolis-based conservation partnership, said both eagles returned to their nest. But after two similar incidents last year along the Potomac, he’s worried about drone harassment.
In Garrett County, an eagle was reported to have been chased from its perch at least four times with a drone. In West Virginia, a nest was abandoned after a man said he flew his drone up to see the eagles in it. Eberly said there is no documentation that drone activity caused eagles to abandon Keyser nest.
Eberly said drone pilots need to be aware of the consequences of eagle interaction.
“We’re not anti-drone,” he said. “There’s just a lack of knowledge about how a drone impacts an eagle.”
While eagles have been reportedly trained to attack and take down drones in other countries, Eberly said an eagle that sees a drone as a threat will likely hurt itself attacking it.
Eberly recommended staying at least 500 feet from an eagle and its nest. Eliciting any reaction from a bird means a drone pilot is flying too close. If the eagle is forced to leave its nest, it could abandon its chicks or eggs.
Humans face consequences when drones disturb eagles, too.
Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, forcing an eagle to leave its nest or perch could cost $5,000 or one-year imprisonment. A second violation can result in a $10,000 fine or up to two years in prison, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Felony convictions come with a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of in prison. Fines double for organizations.
For those who want to get closer to eagles without drones, Eberly recommended becoming a nest monitor. The partnership has 170 volunteers registered for 285 nests around the state, but Eberly said the organization knows of at least 750 nests in Maryland. He estimates 1,600 active nests are in the Chesapeake Bay area.
Those who want the bird’s eye view can check out nest cams like the DC Arboretum Eagle Nest Cam featuring “Mr. President” and “The First Lady,” who are nesting two eggs.
Justin Ford, Digital Content Manager for an educational site for drone users, Dronethusiast, said users need to keep themselves educated to fly properly.
“As dronethusiasts, we feel it is important to educate yourself on the laws, practice responsible drone flying habits, and to respect nature and your surroundings as you get those perfect photos and videos,” Ford said.