Oct. 14—RANDOLPH TOWNSHIP — For seven years, two bald eagles have made their home high in a white pine about a half-mile west of Boland Road in the Erie National Wildlife Refuge Sugar Lake Division.
The eagles, which typically mate for life, spend part of the year occupying a nest near the edge of a stand of trees, just north of a swampy area fed by Brawley Run. It's a convenient location for swooping down to grab a bite to eat — fish, mice, turtles, even the occasional frog or bird.
As in real estate, survival in the wild is all about location.
And the location of this particular nest does come with one significant drawback: a 34.5 kilovolt Penelec distribution line that feeds Northwestern Rural Electric Cooperative Association's network of customers.
Despite what some might consider the deal-breaking proximity of the four high-voltage wires suspended below what is essentially the nest's front door, the eagles took up residence in 2014. At the time, the wires were hung from a series of seven wooden poles about 45 feet tall.
Now, things have changed. The area has become increasingly swampy, making maintenance of the line more challenging for the Penelec crews that service it, according to spokesman Todd Meyers.
"It got very difficult for us to maintain and we needed to have sometimes amphibious vehicles, sometimes boats," he said. "It became something that wasn't as reliable as we'd like to have, and this is an important feed for the Northwestern REC. They're our sole customer (for this line), but they have many customers."
Over recent months, Meyers explained, Penelec crews have addressed the problem by replacing the seven individual poles with two rows of four 120-foot-tall poles usually used for transmission rather than distribution lines. The new wood pole structures carry the line's four wires over the entire swampy stretch, almost 2,000 feet. They are able to do so because at 120 feet, they are nearly three times as tall as the old poles that have been removed.
But with one row of the enormous new poles installed alongside the towering white pine that the two eagles found years ago — and with the high-voltage distribution line no longer simply a bit of an eyesore down below their nest and more of a clear and present danger quite close to the nest — something had to be done. A crash would almost certainly injure a bird and might kill it; a crash would also likely cause a power outage affecting numerous REC members.
The solution was being implemented Wednesday in a style that seemed particularly fitting given the fact that the goal is to protect the eagles living nearby.
Just above the southernmost wire, a helicopter hovered below a cloud-spangled blue sky.
At both ends of the swampy stretch, aerial work platforms, what most people think of as cherry pickers, lifted Penelec staff toward the top of the 120-foot poles, but such heavy equipment was useless in the muck.
The helicopter eliminated the need of raising and lowering a slow-moving bucket, then moving the entire vehicle to the next spot, and going through the same cumbersome process again and again for each wire. But it created a need for something else entirely: somebody to hang off the side of a helicopter.
A narrow metal platform stretched across the helicopter's skids, extending off either side like an out-of-place scaffold. A man in a flight suit and helmet sat at the end closest to the wire, his feet dangling into the void.
From ground level, it appeared to be just another day at work as the helicopter made its way down the line, pausing every 15 to 30 feet or so, edging sidewise until the man could reach the de-energized wire and clip a brightly colored and reflective avian flight diverter. Shaped like a slightly open book, the devices make it easier for birds to spot the line by giving it what Meyer called a "thickness."
"From the birds' perspective, these four wires will look like one solid line," Meyers said.
It will be some time before the final verdict is in from the eagles themselves. Work on replacing the original poles and adding the flight diverters was timed to begin after the eagles' nesting season, but Meyers was optimistic that the response will be positive upon their return.
"It's really the best of both worlds," he said. "It provides the necessary reliability for the humans who depend on the line and also provides protection for the wildlife that is here. We can coexist with wildlife — we've proved it many times, and we're very hopeful that'll be the case here as well."
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.