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Eagle watchers flock together for a special summer

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PITTSBURGH — Thunder crashed in the hills above Hays, and rain spilled over each side of the Glenwood Bridge on a recent Saturday, but Dana Nesiti didn't flinch.

He had been in the area since 7:30 that morning, scanning the skies. For as long as two bald eagles have been nesting in a suburban hillside along the Monongahela River, people like Nesiti have been watching.

The 52-year-old, camouflage-clad West Mifflin resident first stationed himself along the bike trail below the eagles' nest in February 2013, when the pair hatched their first eaglet in a nest that would collapse and be rebuilt in a nearby tree over the course of a year. Eventually, it served as home to three baby eagles that have become the focus of many a Pittsburgher's attention.

All of this year's newborns had hatched by early April, when traffic on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail along East Carson Street increased considerably.

Walkers, runners and bikers paused to stand still and look up.

An equally enthusiastic cadre of followers was building online, where users made live camera footage of the nest their home pages, but none were so devoted as Mr. Nesiti and a group of six, sometimes seven, eagle-watchers who arrive at the spot nearly every day of the week.

"Once you've seen an eagle fly over your head, your life will never be the same," said Annette Devinney, 55, who has spent parts of Christmas, Thanksgiving and her wedding anniversary watching the birds. "It's addicting. My life has changed completely."

The Penn Hills resident and her husband, Gerry, 48, often arrive on the trail about 6 p.m., after Mr. Devinney gets home from working as manager of an auto parts store. It takes just two minutes for them to have the conversation: "Will we go today?" Almost invariably, the answer is yes.

They pack their camera and tripod and snacks in an old baby stroller and drive to Sandcastle Water Park, where there is nearby parking with access to the trail. On weekdays they won't leave until the sun has set, snacking on granola bars and fruit before going home for dinner.

The couple used to do other summer activities, Ms. Devinney recalled. The slow wait for beating wings has since replaced kayaking.

"Patience, that can be the hardest thing," she said.

The virtue was in ample supply on that recent rainy day, as Nesiti and the Devinneys took shelter beneath the Glenwood Bridge. No eagles had been sighted all morning. On sunnier occasions, the group searches "secret stops" near the Monongahela River.

More than 45 eagle-watchers had convened in Greensburg just the day before, for brunch at an upscale Italian restaurant followed by visits to a nature reserve and Steelers training camp. Bill Powers of PixController, the Export-based company behind the live footage camera trained on the nest, talked to those in attendance.

"We've never seen anything like this," Powers said. "Pittsburgh has truly rallied around the eagles."

The novelty of the occasion is not lost on the devotees, many of whom view the birds' presence as a turning point in Pittsburgh's development. For more than 250 years, bald eagles had been absent from the city's shores due to damage that industrialization wrought on the region's ecosystem.

"It's a fascinating story of Pittsburgh's evolution, from the smoky city to a place that can house three eagles," said Sue Vrabel, an eagle-watcher who lives in Churchill.

A group of eagle-watchers has sold custom merchandise — T-shirts with "FULL FLEDGE" on them, a wine glass with a painted feather — to raise $1,000 toward installing a similar camera to spy on another eagle nest, in Harmar. PixController plans to work with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania and the state game commission to get approval to mount the second camera.

This would be an exciting development for the eagles' online following. Internet users have turned their mutual fascination with the national symbol into full-time avocations and the basis for new friendships.

Peggy O'Connor, a 49-year-old resident of Moon, has the camera footage open on her browser 24 hours a day. She is a regular poster on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's eagle page, which has amassed more than 8,000 comments. "So many paths have crossed," she said. "It was the eagles that brought us together."

Site users post links or tell stories of their experiences with wildlife. When one user, "Spenser Amadeus," shared details of her husband's hospital stay, some were quick to show their support while others were critical of the disclosure.

"There are people on that site that are a little bit too curious about people's personal side," said a user who identified herself only as "LJ" Brott.

Even as the PixController camera is set to be removed Aug. 19 and the juvenile eagles prepare to part ways with their parents, Nesiti and the Devinneys have no plans to halt their visits.

In the summers, bikers who zoom past "like they're Lance Armstrong" sometimes accuse the watchers of "clogging the trail," Nesiti said.

In the winters, it's only the three of them.

"It's like a Christmas card," Ms. Devinney said, recalling the image of an eagle perched on snow-laden branches.

So to Hays they will return, a huddle of human figures standing at the side of a trail, looking up.


Online:

http://bit.ly/1q4VsCm


Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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