Larry Walsh: Bald eagles are the stars

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If there was any doubt about the popularity of the Great Allegheny Passage and/or its proximity to the bald eagle nest in Hays, it was dispelled Sunday.

As the Post-Gazette's 30-member Eagle Watch Bicycle Trip approached one of the viewing sites along the asphalt-paved Three Rivers Heritage Trail segment of the passage, there was a steady stream of bicyclists pedaling past people with binoculars and cameras with long lenses aimed at the nest.

National Aviary ornithologist Bob Mulvihill greeted us as we wheeled our bicycles off the busy trail. After introductory remarks, he hoisted a tripod-mounted spotting scope on his shoulder and led us about 100 yards up the trail.

He set up the scope, focused it on the nest, and we took turns looking through it to the sturdy nest on the wooded hillside above several sets of active railroad tracks. The white heads of the parents were visible at times, but the three eaglets were out of sight. But not for long.

Bicyclists with smartphones and Internet access went to to catch a glimpse of the youngsters when their parents moved around the nest.

The webcam that enables viewers to monitor the nest in real time, complete with tilt, pan, zoom, audio and night-vision capability, was developed by PixController of Murrysville, primarily for surveillance by the military, law enforcement and drug interdiction.

The public can view the live video free. The webcam was installed at no cost to the state by PixController in partnership with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Some technology and communication companies donated supplies and assistance and the WildEarth content provider contributed a server.

Because eagle-watchers can be so focused on the nest, they can be oblivious to bicyclists trying to pass them on the trail. I played traffic cop until it was time to return to our bicycles.

Before we left the area, Mulvihill and PixController president Bill Powers, brought our group up to date on the eagles -- from their arrival last year, parenting one eaglet in 2013, building a more substantial nest for the youngsters that arrived this year and taking turns feeding them.

Mulvihill and Powers took turns answering questions from the group. Powers told them it wasn't long before the eagles and their young went global. He said more than 1.4 million individuals from around the world have called up the website to see the eagle family.

"The response has been gratifying," Powers said. "And it was great to see everyone from pre-schoolers to adults in their 70s and 80s enjoying the trail."

My thanks to Mulvihill and Powers, outdoors editor John Hayes, assistant managing editor Tom Birdsong and everyone who joined us on the ride.

Wheels of Hope

The Wheels of Hope Bicycle Ride and Fun Walk on the Steel Valley Trail May 10 is a rain-or-shine event. The ride-walk, hosted by the Jodie Matta-Dillinger (JMD) Cancer Resource Center at UPMC McKeesport, includes a bike raffle, a chance to win a mini iPad and discounts at the Hard Rock Café at Station Square.

I inadvertently doubled-down on the ride distances in the column last week. The round-trip rides to Station Square and the McKee's Point Marina are 15 miles, respectively. Boston is a 24-mile round-trip; the Dravo Cemetery is a 35-mile round-trip and the ride to and from West Newton is 52 miles. Walks will be as long or as short as the walkers prefer.

The entry fees are $25 for adults, $20 for children 16 and younger.

Information: Call 412-664-2664 for advance raffle tickets.

Larry Walsh writes about recreational bicycling for the Post-Gazette.

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