BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - Nestled in a famous pine tree at Kennedy Space Center, pairs of bald eagles have stood watch for decades as towering vehicles of aluminum and carbon vaulted off pads just a few miles away.
Their nest, located just west of the spaceport's primary north-south artery known as Kennedy Parkway, is famous for its large size and ability to make visitors crane their necks during bus tours just to catch a glimpse – and maybe a photo.
But News 6 partner Florida Today reports that the roughly 80-year-old tree supporting the nest has died, according to wildlife biologists who oversee the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which includes portions of KSC.
The likely culprit? Hurricane Irma.
"Before Irma, the tree was green and in good condition," said Mike Legare, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, who said the roughly 8-foot-wide nest has occupied the tree since at least 1971. "It looks like Irma put a little lean into it and immediately after the storm, the needles lost some green."
From there, Legare said, it's possible that the tree's immune system – the production of sap to fend off unwanted visitors – was suppressed, paving the way for an infestation of pine bark beetles, which are common in the area.
When bark beetles begin burrowing into a pine tree, the damaged area fills with sap, forcing out the critter that is ultimately aiming to reproduce under the tree's bark, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“The bottom line is, the hurricane weakened the tree to the point where pine bark beetles overtook it," Legare said.
Over the summer, officials conducted prescribed burns in the area, but the nest tree was singled out and protected from the blazes.
The tree's death, however, doesn't mean the end of the road for the nest.
“Eagles will readily use the nest in a dead tree,” Legare said. “It’s not the only pair of eagles we have that are using a dead tree.”
He expects the birds of prey will use it until it "literally falls down or the nest falls out," which could be up to several more years. That's also when biologists and others will be able to determine a more accurate age of the tree.
Bald eagles, one of the success stories of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, choose a nest in male-and-female pairs and defend the territory surrounding it for the duration of their stay. Naturally, biologists took an interest in the KSC nest in the 1970s and began documenting its progress as part of the larger protection effort.
Now, Merritt Island typically hosts between 15 to 18 bald eagle nests a year.
But the large KSC nest – its weight difficult to pinpoint – is remarkable due to its continued occupation by the birds for nearly 50 years, as well as its proximity to the bus tour route.
"It's an exceptional nest, at least on this property," Legare said. "It's deserved the attention."
In the meantime, bald eagle residents of the nest can continue to enjoy launches and landings of rockets named after another bird of prey – SpaceX's Falcon 9.
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