As far as two American bald eagles were concerned, it was the perfect place to build their nest. It was sturdy, with an arm of crisscrossed steel beams just waiting to support a patchwork of branches and carcasses. And it was about 80 feet off the ground, a detail important to birds practically synonymous with the freedom of an open sky. It must have seemed a glorious piece of real estate, dwarfing the scraggly trees that grow near the wetlands over which it loomed, an ideal aerie to lay eggs, to raise eaglets.
But there was a problem. The eagles’ carefully selected new home sat on the arm of an Oncor transmission tower. Stick by stick, they were constructing their king-bed-size nest on 350,000 volts of electricity.
John DeFillipo has served since 2010 as director of John Bunker Sands Wetland Center, located 30 minutes southeast of Dallas and about a mile from the Oncor transmission tower. He has been there since the doors first opened, and in 2012, he watched the eagles construct their nest. He was excited to be so close to the majestic birds, but he worried about the dangers of the electricity tower. One wrong move and the birds might fry. Laws prohibit tampering with eagle nests, though, so there wasn’t much the young director could do but watch and wait.
He watched as the laid-back male eagle hunted for perfect sticks to bring to the female. If they didn’t meet her standards, she threw them out. Despite her fussiness, the two completed the nest and were soon taking turns incubating their eggs. Not long after that, they were taking turns doling out pieces of fish to their two new eaglets.
In the spring of 2013, DeFillipo hosted a meeting at John Bunker Sands Wetland Center with representatives from Oncor, the utility company, and Falcon Steel, the company that had erected the transmission tower. Ten people congregated near the quiet wetland to discuss how they could help the eagles avoid electrocution.
DeFillipo is engaging and animated, often sporting a wide-brimmed hiker’s sun hat. He’s the kind of person for whom vacations involve treks out to little-traveled nature sites. He knew it was typical behavior for eagles to abandon their nest for a three-month summer vacation period. But the parents would return come fall, and if nothing was done, they would be in danger for another year. When DeFillipo’s guests asked what he thought should be done, his father’s voice popped into his head.
“When I was younger, my dad taught me something very important,” DeFillipo says. “He said, ‘Son, if you ever encounter a situation where someone asks you an open-ended question, always think of the biggest thing you can imagine.’ The biggest thing I could think of was to build a brand-new tower.”
His plan: they’d unbolt the existing tower’s arm, nest and all, and attach it to a specially made, danger-free tower. The group of representatives laughed heartily at first, but the idea piqued their interest. Engineers were consulted on all sides, and the plan was deemed possible.
Falcon Steel kick-started the project by constructing a new tower. It was ready by early summer. But getting a permit to relocate the nest took time. And by August 2013, it was too late; the eagles had returned early.
DeFillipo was devastated, and everyone held their breaths for another year as the oblivious eagles patched up their nest and laid their eggs on the transmission tower. Meanwhile, 1,200 feet away, construction crews erected the new tower. And as the young eagles grew and began stretching their wings, they’d flap out to it for practice.
In June 2014, the family again departed for the summer. Workers waited 10 days to ensure the birds were gone, and the relocation plan was set into motion. Over a weekend in July, the arm was unbolted and lowered onto a flatbed truck, a process that took 12 hours. The contractors performing the relocation even purchased Bubble Wrap, which they rolled around the nest as though packing up a family heirloom.
Now would be a good time to mention that this nest is massive. Its walls are made of branches; its bowels are lined with skeletons and sticks and grass. It weighs several hundred pounds, so the contractors welded reinforcements at its base. Then they used a crane to bolt the arm with the nest onto the new tower, tucked a camera onto the end of the top arm, and bolted that one on, too.
“Then we all walked away,” DeFillipo says.
The project cost $160,000, paid mostly through in-kind and direct donations. But in the end, DeFillipo knew, it might amount to nothing. There was just a 50 percent chance that the eagle pair would accept their new place in the world.
Again he had to wait, watch, and hope for the best.
America’s badass freedom bird, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, has a 7-foot wingspan, 2-inch talons, and can reach diving speeds of 100 mph. Eagles lend their name to sports teams, ships, aircraft, and radio stations. Eagle is the highest distinction a Boy Scout can earn, and the bird’s likeness appears on money and coats of arms. John Denver wrote songs about how eagles “know neither limit nor bound,” and in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, characters are routinely rescued by giant eagles. They’re flying dinosaurs, monstrous and merciless and awesome.
And people want to see them. That alone has drawn plenty of eagle enthusiasts to John Bunker Sands Wetland Center. The wetlands, which provide a dedicated source of unpolluted water, are a magnet for wildlife and birds of all kinds.
“The reality is, we have eagles throughout Texas,” says Sam Kieschnick, urban biologist for Texas Parks & Wildlife. “John Bunker Sands Wetland Center has a healthy aquatic ecosystem, and healthy ecosystems sustain fish, which ensure food for the eagles. That’s a big reason they keep returning.”
Eagles aside, the wetland center is a hidden gem. It was named for John Bunker Sands, the son of Caroline Rose Hunt and grandson of H.L. Hunt. Sands was a dedicated conservationist who oversaw Rosewood Ranches and rotated the cattle to mimic grazing patterns of the buffalo that once roamed the land. He became well-known for his deep dedication to holistic ranch management. He was less sure what to do, though, about a levee that caused rainfall to accumulate on his family’s land. In the early 1990s, a friend offered a suggestion.
“John Bunker Sands Wetland Center has a healthy aquatic ecosysteam, and healthy ecosystems sustain fish, which ensure food for the eagles. That’s a big reason they keep returning.”
“As the story goes, his friend said, ‘Why are you fighting the wetland? Just reestablish wetlands on the property,’ ” DeFillipo says. “So he started researching and learning about wetland mitigation banking.”
Sands used colored pencils to sketch ideas; he sought counsel from a local firm that specializes in man-made wetlands. Dismantling the levee would be difficult, though, so Sands’ colored-pencil plans went on a shelf. In the meantime, he brought his ideas about land stewardship and conservation to ranchers across Texas.
“His passion and knowledge of wetland restoration was contagious,” DeFillipo says. “Wetlands were seen as wastelands for many years, but people were inspired by Sands’ story and saw that re-creating and rebuilding these wetlands could have a positive effect.”
In 2004, a year after Sands succumbed to pancreatic cancer, a North Texas Municipal Water District employee approached the Hunt-Sands family about their Rosewood ranch property in Seagoville. He was scouting for a location close to the Trinity River upon which to construct a wetland. The Water District couldn’t have known that Sands was ruminating on the concept a decade earlier, but the family was eager to help realize the dream. The land was leased, then sold, to the Water District. And the East Fork Water Reuse Project, the official name of the tranquil 2,000-acre wetland, began.
The wetland took five years to complete. The nature center, named for Sands, grew out of this private-public partnership between the Rosewood Corporation and the Water District, each of which contributed $800,000 toward the project. The wooden boardwalk that winds over the wetlands was completed in 2009; the 5,100-square-foot wetland center where students learn about water conservation opened in 2010.
Today, the East Fork Water Reuse Project (known as “the wetland”) collects treated wastewater from 13 upstream cities that include Plano, McKinney, and Frisco. It flows from the Trinity River into the wetland, where plants filter out phosphates, nitrates, and ammonia.
“Wetland plants do a remarkable job at phytoremediation, a fancy word that literally means ‘plants restoring balance,’ ” DeFillipo says.
After a week in the wetland, the water is pumped to Lavon Lake. Eventually it winds up at the water treatment facility, where it’s disinfected and later returned to the municipalities for reuse. The project recycles up to 15 percent of the total water supply for those cities.
In addition to its role in this closed urban water cycle, the area is a picturesque haven for wildlife, including otters, coyotes, fish, and, yes, America’s freedom bird. An outdoorsman like Sands would have appreciated it, and he probably would have understood how the presence of apex predators like eagles both signal a healthy ecosystem and provide a powerful teaching tool.
“People don’t walk in the front door and say, ‘Tell me about water conservation,’ ” DeFillipo says. “The best thing about this eagle nest, for the wetland center, is the opportunity to teach conservation literacy of water, wetlands, and wildlife. It raises awareness. These American bald eagles are thriving, right here, because of a man-made wetland.”
The twin transmission towers—one pulsing with electricity, the other a brand-new decoy built for the eagle couple—stood unattended until the beginning of September 2014. Then the eagle pair returned, ready to raise their next brood.
They flew back to the old tower. It had been outfitted with poles designed to deter birds from building nests, but the stubborn eagles hovered around it, dropping sticks where their nest should have been.
Oncor’s contractors came out and removed the sticks—twice. Then, on October 1, DeFillipo was in a rocking chair on the back porch of John Bunker Sands Wetland Center. It was cool out, just around 7 am, and as he sat clearing his head, he looked out across the shimmering wetland and over to the new transmission tower. That’s when he saw it: one of the eagles did a graceful swoop and landed atop the new tower. He could hardly believe his eyes. The eagles had relented.
Why the eagles finally decided to embrace their old nest in its new place is a mystery. Perhaps they were sick of the contractors clearing their sticks, or they decided they liked the new tower. Or maybe they’d resigned themselves to the fact that human tampering is an inevitability in today’s natural environment.
The human-nature interaction is one of the things that inspires me about John Bunker Sands Wetland Center. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been a volunteer there for nearly five years. The center and surrounding wetland encompass a strange and tenuous partnership between people and nature. It’s a testament to the ways that humans can use their ingenuity to mitigate environmental problems, particularly ones that previous humans caused. After all, this is a place where boardroom meetings resulted in a reconstituted wetland and, later, a rescued eagles’ nest. But these aren’t the only examples of occasions when people have come together to restore balance with nature.
Today, bald eagles are rare enough to inspire awe, but they’re not as rare as they once were. In the 1960s, Texas had only five breeding pairs; today, Houston Audubon estimates put that number around 160, and in 2007, the American bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. The steady return of eagles can be linked to the 1972 ban on DDT, an insecticide that traveled up the food chain and resulted in thin-shelled eagle eggs.
“Anytime we introduce something into the ecosystem, there are consequences,” Kieschnick, the urban biologist, says. “DDT persisted from its intended purpose to these unintentional consequences, and people came together. We started reducing and banning those chemicals, and that showed a boom of increase in eagles.”
It was a mass movement of stewardship that righted an environmental wrong, but that’s not to say the bird is completely in the clear. Bald eagles still face obstacles today, including lead poisoning, poaching, and electrocution. They also require large, open spaces with abundant water sources, and such places aren’t always easy find.
Plenty of stories about eagles are sad ones, but the success of our couple isn’t exactly a fluke. After all, these eagles happened upon a place where a man-made wetland, a water district, a family corporation, an energy company, a steel company, and a host of nature center employees and volunteers come together in the name of stewardship. And through technology and communication, this disparate collection of human beings managed to create a haven for eagles.
The eagles have raised 12 eaglets. This past year, schoolchildren visiting the nature center watched through birding scopes as the pair prepped their nest for their 11th and 12th babies. Some asked educators how to tell the mom from the dad (she’s larger); some exclaimed that they’d never known there were eagles in Texas. Sometimes the kids were rendered speechless.
Tom Fleming, a wildlife photographer, has been documenting the eagles since 2015, creating something of an eagle family photo album on social media. Earlier this year, he snapped shots of the male, who’s become more of a bruiser as he’s grown older, engaging in dramatic aerial battles with vultures who venture too close to his family.
“I go out once a week and spend a couple hours there,” Fleming says. “I’ve learned you have to keep your eyes open. When you watch, you get to see how skilled these animals are at surviving. And I’ve found that, the more people know about these animals, the more they can connect with them.”
From a respectable distance, Fleming is always struck by the caring nature of the parents, how they feed the chicks piece by piece when they’re small and how, like human parents, they relinquish control as the babies grow. And he watched, as he had many times before, as JBS11 and JBS12—the identifiers given to the babies—grew darker feathers, spread their wings, and took flight.
Just as the eagles’ lives change with the seasons, exciting upgrades are on the horizon for John Bunker Sands Wetland Center. DeFillipo hopes to enhance the camera near the eagles’ nest, creating a more reliable viewing experience. There are also plans to expand the wetland center by adding an outdoor education-and-event stage, new programming, and classroom silos that will double the student capacity from 60 to 120. DeFillipo, along with the partners involved in the nest relocation project, is also planning an eagle-centric exhibit. It’s likely this hidden gem won’t stay hidden much longer.
In early June of this year, the eagles left the nest for the summer. With any luck, the juveniles will find electricity-free nesting spots of their own. And by the time this story is printed, our eagle couple will have returned to their nest on the fake transmission tower. He’ll be offering her the finest sticks in the land, and she’ll be throwing them out. They’ll take turns sitting on their eggs until new life cracks through, and before they know it, they’ll be watching as their 13th and 14th eaglets grow into brown-specked juveniles and take flight.
DeFillipo expects their return in September, but there’s no guarantee. Even those who would create an entirely new transmission tower to save a pair of eagles know that sometimes we must be content to let nature take its course.