A bald eagle soaring high on the Fourth of July.
It’s about as American an image as one could conjure.
And for Pennsylvanians this Independence Day, the opportunity to witness such a sight firsthand is greater than at any other time in recent memory.
In the 30th anniversary year of efforts to restore bald-eagle populations in the Commonwealth, the bird – a national symbol of strength and freedom – not only is continuing its remarkable comeback, but is taking it to new heights.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission this week released its preliminary count of bald eagle nests statewide, and the numbers chart yet another high point in an impressive upward trend.
So far this year, 252 eagle nests have been confirmed throughout the state, with nesting eagles present in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
That’s a sharp increase from the previous mid-year report, which the Game Commission typically releases just before the Fourth of July.
A year ago, there were 206 confirmed eagle nests in 51 counties.
Game Commission Executive Director Carl G. Roe said that as eye-popping as the latest numbers might be, they’re far from surprising.
“We’re to the point in Pennsylvania where the bald eagle’s success is something that’s expected,” Roe said. “Year after year, their numbers grow. Year after year, their range grows broader.
“It truly is a remarkable story,” he said. “And remarkably, it’s a true story, and one that continually builds up to a better and better ending.”
Just 30 years ago, the bald eagle’s future in Pennsylvania looked bleak. Its population decimated by the effects of water pollution, persecution and compromised nest success caused by organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, only three pairs of nesting eagles remained in the state – all of them located in Crawford County, in northwestern Pennsylvania along the Ohio border.
But in 1983, the Game Commission launched what would become a seven-year bald eagle restoration program. The agency, as part of a federal restoration initiative, sent employees to Saskatchewan to obtain eaglets from wild nests.
Initially, 12 seven-week-old eaglets were taken from nests in Canada’s Churchill River valley and brought to specially constructed towers at two sites. At these towers – at Haldeman Island on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, and at Shohola Lake in Pike County – the birds were “hacked,” a process by which the eaglets essentially are raised by humans, but without knowing it, then released gradually into the wild.
In all, 88 bald eaglets from Canada were released from the sites as part of the program, which was funded in part by the Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh and the federal Endangered Species Fund.
This reintroduction jump-started the recovery.
By 1998, Pennsylvania was home to 25 pairs of nesting bald eagles. Within the next three years, the number of nesting pairs doubled. Eagles continued to thrive, and in 2005, the Game Commission took the bald eagle off the state’s endangered list and reclassified it as a threatened species.
A year later, more than 100 nests were confirmed statewide. And now, the number stands at 252.
It’s not likely to stop there, either, said Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds section. While the mid-year update on nests provides a good indicator of how bald eagles are doing statewide, Barber said it’s a preliminary number and additional nests typically are confirmed as the year goes on.
In 2012, for instance, 206 nests were reported preliminarily, but the year-end total was 237 statewide. It was a showing similar to 2011, when the preliminary total of 203 nests increased to 217 by year’s end.
But with a lofty 252 nests at mid-year, how many more could really be out there?
“It’s hard to say, but in all likelihood more remain to be counted,” Barber said. “Our tally was 249 just a week or two ago, and three more were reported since that time, so I’d be surprised if the preliminary number doesn’t grow.”
Perhaps the easiest way to report a nest is to contact the Game Commission through its public comments email address: firstname.lastname@example.org, and use the words “Eagle Nest Information” in the subject field. Reports also can be phoned in to a Game Commission Region Office or the Harrisburg headquarters.
Barber said discovering a new eagle nest can be exciting, but people need to keep their wits about them, and make sure they’re not doing anything to frighten the birds.
Those encountering nests are asked to keep a safe distance. Disturbing eagles is illegal under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Some pairs are tolerant of human activity, while others are sensitive. Their reaction often depends on the activity and approach of the individual, the nesting cycle stage, and if the eagles are used to seeing people.
“Where there is regular public access and established viewing areas, some pairs can be very tolerant if visitors are predictable and nonthreatening,” Barber said. “But when someone sneaks to the base of a nest tree, most eagles become alarmed.”
Barber said there have been cases where people purposely flushed eagles from nests in attempts to get pictures of them in flight. Such behavior not only is illegal, but runs the risk of killing unhatched or recently hatched birds, she said.
Adults that are scared from a nest could abandon it, or might not return in time to keep unhatched eggs at the proper incubating temperature. Frightened eaglets also could jump from the safety of the nest, then have no way to return, Barber said.
“There are all types of problems associated with getting too close to a nest,” Barber said. “For the sake of eagles, use you binoculars or a spotting scope. They are after all, still on the comeback trail from being an endangered species.”
While the bald eagle population grows stronger each year in Pennsylvania, the birds remain classified as a threatened species statewide.
Their rebound, however, continues to astonish and provide those who love wildlife with reason to celebrate. Just this year, 41 pairs of eagles – believed to be first-time nesters – nested at new sites.
It goes to show you the extent of the bald eagle’s success. In Pennsylvania, and the nation as a whole, this magnificent raptor truly is living up to its iconic image of enduring American strength and freedom.
“There’s no better story to tell and retell every Fourth of July,” Roe said.