Natural environment in an urban setting Eagles raising young in S eward Park nests

Christina Gallegos has a passion for Seward Park.

Those who've witnessed Gallagos enthuse over the 277-acre park's natural wonders - majestic views of distant Mount Rainier or an up-close look at a grove of sword ferns - won't be shocked to learn the park naturalist once studied the theater.

"Yes, yes!" Gallegos declares when she catches sight of an eagle in its nest, throwing her arms up in exclamation.

Later, while walking a shaded trail past old-growth cedar and fir: "Wow, look at the huckleberry," she murmurs, softly, for full effect.

Gallegos then rattles off a string of park facts and figures, and moves on to the programs of Environmental Learning Center, which she runs. The 1927, Tudor-like building where the center is housed was built to offer extensive food service and the fellow who served the food lived on the premises, she says.

Expectations have changed. These days a mobile van parks nearby offering mochas and shaved ice.

But Gallegos, a 100 percent Chicana who grew up on a farm in Colorado and studied theater at the University of Washington, is focused on more important things than food.

Like the park's bald eagles.

There are two nests in the park and both are currently occupied. Bald eagles mate for life. Males and females share domestic duties: Both incubate the eggs and feed the hatchlings until they fly. The head of least one hatchling can be seen sticking up out of the nest near the amphitheater parking lot. The other nest is fitted, appropriately enough, into the park's Heritage Tree, considered, at 500-600 years old, the oldest Douglas fir in the city.

Walking the trail toward the amphitheater parking lot, carrying her tripod telescope, Gallegos encounters a svelte jogger with an unleashed dog.

Gellegos, who's been on the Seward Park beat since 2000, sees more of this than she'd like.

"Please put your dog on a leash," Gallegos says politely but firmly.

The woman stops. "My husband has it. He's back there," she pants, pointing to the trees.

"If we don't leash the dogs we can't maintain the park," Gallegos admonishes. The woman nods in agreement and jogs off.

Bald eagles not put off by the music

The amphitheater's eastern parking lot affords the best place to view one of the eagle's nests. Stand with the regulatory sign at your back. Look east for the tallest, darkest fir, just to the right of the cedar. The huge nest, fashioned of sticks and leaves, is about a third of the way down the tree.

"Our eagles are so acclimated to urban life," Gallegos says. "They have two big Seafair events here," she laughs, referring to the outdoor concerts. She sets up her tripod and zeroes in on the nest.

Sure enough, a chick sticks its head up out of the nest.

Bald eagles usually lay one to three eggs between December and March and will take up to 45 days to hatch Normally, only one eaglet survives to fly. Gallegos figures the first attempts at flight will come toward the end of September.

Eaglets will reach their parents' size, with 80-inch wingspans and bodies nearly a yard long, inside of six months. Immature eagles, darker in color, are without their parents' classic white markings fore and aft.

Gallegos says its OK to approach the tree as far as the edge of the uncut grass, which begins about 20 yards shy of the nesting tree.

A few minutes later, while Gallegos strides through the park's forest trails, the woman jogger and her dog without a leash reappear.

Her husband still has the leash, she says, rather impatiently this time, and jogs on. A minute later the husband strolls by, carrying a baby. Gallegos asks about the leash. He doesn't have the leash.

Gallegos has seen and heard it all, including behavior born from a sense of entitlement. That only reinforces her pet mission: to make sure the park serves the neighborhood youth, who, she says, who don't take advantage of the park's resources, according to a recent survey conducted by Seattle Parks and Recreation.

A spiritual place

"We saw gaping holes in the southend for environmental studies," she says. "I want to encourage those young mouths to go, '"Ah,"' when they visit the park, Gallegos says.

Gallegos moved from Colorado to Seattle in 1979 to study theater at the University of Washington. With classic parental concern, her father persuaded her transfer to the education department and a more promising job market.

But Gallegos, an outdoorsy type - she grew up on her father's farm, after all - realized, "I can't do this in these four walls."

In 1985 she started with Seattle Parks and Recreation as volunteer coordinator. While on that beat she helped create some two dozen "friends of parks" groups all over the city. Gallegos tried moving back to Colorad once but couldn't stay away from Seattle. Back with Seattle Parks and Recreation, she's living her dream job.

"There's a spiritual connection that not a lot of people talk about," she says of the park. "It's a calming thing," Gallegos adds, noting that teenagers can come to the park on a bad day to get outside of themselves and the assaults of popular culture.

Gallegos figures she has eight years to go before she retires. For someone who takes the long view, and she thinks about how the park will be 100 years from now, that isn't a lot of time.

There's so much to accomplish with the Environmental Learning Center, Gallegos believes.

"Seward Park is one of the best kept secrets in the neighborhood," she says. "That's a good thing and a bad thing. But our kids in the Valley are going to get served."[[In-content Ad]]