Game Commission Confirms Nesting Bald Eagles in Philadelphia Area

HARRISBURG – Football fans are sometimes superstitious about “signs” that their team may have a good season. If that is the case, Philadelphia Eagles’ fans may just have a reason to live up to their boisterous reputation this year.

Pennsylvania Game Commission officials today announced that they have confirmed the first known bald eagle nest in Philadelphia County in more than 200 years. Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer Jerry Czech, who serves Philadelphia County, reported a bald eagle nest has been located in the City of Brotherly Love, and that Game Commission personnel and volunteers have been monitoring the nest and documenting activity.

“We don’t know if the nest will result in the pair successfully breeding and laying eggs yet, but we are very hopeful,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Supervisor, and a native of Philadelphia. “Each year, about 20 percent of Pennsylvania’s eagle nests fail for reasons such as disturbances, predators and harsh weather. However, our confirmation of an eagle nest within the Philadelphia City limits demonstrates the resilience of this species and its apparent growing tolerance to human activity. This find is an historic moment that returns some of Pennsylvania’s native wildlife to the doorstep of its largest city.”

Brauning said that Game Commission officials will not reveal the exact location of the nest site to avoid drawing unnecessary attention and possible disturbance to the nest.

“In June of 2006, just in time for the Fourth of July holiday, the Game Commission announced that Pennsylvania had – for the first time in more than a century – recorded more than 100 bald eagle nests in the state,” Brauning said. “This nest in Philadelphia, combined with other eagle activity reports from around the state, is a good sign that we will be able to announce even more confirmed nests this year when we provide our annual summary in late June.”

After reviewing all reports from 2006, Game Commission biologists were able to confirm 116 active nests that produced at least 134 young, which also marked a new record for bald eagles in Pennsylvania. So far, the agency has received reports of at least nine new eagle nests this year.

Other Game Commission personnel are reporting bald eagle nesting activity, such as Crawford County Land Management Group Supervisor Jerry A. Bish, who oversees, among other State Game Lands, the Game Commission’s Pymatuning Wildlife Management Area. He noted that eagle nesting now is in full swing and that most seem to be doing well.

“If you are interested in seeing eagles, now is the best time of year,” LMGS Bish said. “They are concentrated at nest sites and there are no leaves on the trees. As with all wildlife, observe it from a safe distance. Disturbing an eagle nest can impact eagle reproduction, and is a federal and state offense.”

Crawford County WCO Mario L. Piccirilli said that bird enthusiasts are “flocking” to the agency’s Pymatuning Wildlife Management Area to view avian raptors at this time of year.

“Numerous eagles are on their nests incubating eggs at this time,” he said. “Unfortunately, one adult eagle recently met its demise when it ran into power lines while its mate was on the nest incubating. Eagles can be seen regularly in the Pymatuning, Conneaut Lake and Linesville areas and are a sight to behold, especially the adult birds with their distinctive white head and tail plumage. The eagles can be seen winging their way over downtown Conneaut Lake as traffic passes directly below.”

LMGS Shayne A. Hoachlander, who oversees SGLs in Crawford and Erie counties, noted that some bald eagle pairs have started to incubate eggs in nests within his district.

Erie County WCO Larry M. Smith said that, with eagles returning to their nest sites, it is very important for people not to approach or disturb these areas. “Everyone needs to stay out of the restricted areas at these nest locations,” he urged.

Erie County WCO Darin L. Clark reports that he was checking eagle nests recently when he saw that one pair has already started to incubate.

Bald eagle sightings are not restricted to just southeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania, however. Union County WCO Dirk B. Remensnyder said that the residents of Lewisburg have been getting a good show recently.

“Every evening, a bald eagle has been searching the river for its next meal,” WCO Remensnyder said. “So far, people have gotten to watch it take a goose and a squirrel for its dinner.”

Potter County WCO Denise H. Mitcheltree recently observed a mature bald eagle flying over the Susquehanna River outside of Lock Haven.

“The bright white head feathers were quite reflective and certainly caught the attention of many drivers as they craned their necks to catch a second glimpse of this majestic bird,” WCO Mitcheltree said.

In early February, Clarion County WCO Rodney E. Bimber was traveling through Tionesta with his wife. “As we approached a bridge, two immature eagles swooped over our car fully involved in a mating ritual,” he said. “When we returned later, one of the youngsters was sitting in a tree near the bridge surveying the river. It is great to see the eagles making such a strong comeback in the area.”

Elk County Forester Bryce Hall noted that bald eagles have become a fairly common sight along the Clarion River corridor in the Northcentral Region, but he was still quite surprised to spot four mature bald eagles perched in the same tree in the Owls Nest area of Elk County.

Forest County WCO Daniel P. Schmidt reports that he recently had the privilege to see three bald eagles, two mature and one immature, flying in his district.

Centre County WCO Eric L. Seth noted that a pair of bald eagles has once again returned to Bald Eagle State Park in Centre County. “One adult began sitting on a nest on Feb. 9, leading us to believe that incubation has started,” he said. “This pair has been very successful in the past fledging young. Hopefully, the trend will continue this year.”

Cambria County WCO Larry Olsavsky reported that visitors to Prince Gallitzin State Park has been observing two mature bald eagles feeding on some shorebirds. “We’ve deposited a few road-killed deer in the area to keep the eagles around if the shorebirds decide to leave,” he said.

LMGS Doug Dunkerely, who oversees SGLs in Beaver, Washington, Allegheny and Greene counties, reported that bald eagle sightings are increasing in his area.

“A mature bald eagle has been sighted on SGL 232, which was designated an Important Bird Area in 2004,” Dunkerley said. “This SGL has several wetlands that provide excellent habitat for eagles, and are some of the key areas where people have reported seeing it.”

Northampton County WCO Brad Kreider reported that the bald eagles have returned to the same pine tree nesting site as 2006, along the Delaware River.

“This is the first time in four years that the eagles have used the same nest, and they already are sitting on eggs,” WCO Kreider said.

Berks County WCO Dave Brockmeier has confirmed eagle-nesting activity in his district. “Both mature birds have been at the nest, and I am hopeful for another successful year,” he said.

The eagle nest at the Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, however, hasn’t reported any incubating activity at this point. But, as LMGS Jim Binder noted, this particular nest tends to get a later start than most.

“The pair has been rebuilding its nest, however, we have not recorded any incubation at this point,” Binder said. “In the last three years, incubation began as late as March 29. Last year, the nest did not produce any young, which raises the concern about fertility in this pair.”

Northumberland County WCO Rick A. Deiterich reported that, while crossing the Danville/Riverside Bridge, he happened to see two mature bald eagles flying just 20 feet above the bridge deck.

“Each eagle was carrying a Canada goose in its talons,” WCO Deiterich said. “You can’t really appreciate the actual size of an eagle until you see one with a full-size goose in its talons. Although the eagles were struggling to gain altitude with the heavy weight in tow, both were last seen heading downstream.”

Northeast Region Federal Aid Supervisor Peter F. Sussenbach, who previously served as a WCO in Monroe County, noted that a new bald eagle nest was discovered just a few years ago in his former district.

“The first nest documented in recent times in Monroe County was not found on one of our large lakes or streams, but on a relatively small mountain stream,” Sussenbach said. “With this new nest in a rather unusual location, the possibilities seem endless for suitable nesting areas throughout the Poconos.”

Other positive news for bald eagles in Pennsylvania was announced in early-January, when the Game Commission’s annual midwinter eagle survey of Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County produced the largest number of birds sighted since the survey began in 1990. The team documented a total of 14 birds on a 110-mile trip around the shores of the largest lake totally within Pennsylvania’s borders.

“We documented, perhaps, three distinct family units, which are adult eagles accompanied by fledglings of the previous year,” said Southcentral Region Land Management Group Supervisor Rob Criswell, who was part of the agency’s survey team.

“Years ago when we went on this survey, any bald eagles we saw were often specks in the sky escaping over ridges or birds that flushed a quarter of a mile in front of us,” added Southcentral Region Information and Education Supervisor Don Garner, another survey team member. “This year it was amazing how close we got to them, and several of the eagles never left their perch when we traveled by. They are clearly acclimating to boat traffic on the lake.”

Southcentral Region Wildlife Management Supervisor Justin Vreeland noted that only in recent years have eagle numbers begun to climb.

“In 1990, the first year of the survey, two eagles were logged in on Raystown,” Vreeland said. “The lowest years were 1992 and 1996, when only one was seen. In 2001, there were eight, and last year 13. Of course weather and several other factors will make these numbers vary from year to year. But, the trend is very positive.”

“If you are old enough to read this, then you are old enough to remember when a bald eagle was something seen in a magazine article or TV documentary, but never in the wild,” said Huntingdon County WCO Richard Danley, another survey team member. “We saw one directly across from the Aitch boat launch, and the best place to go to get a glimpse of one is probably around the dam and spillway. But, they are out there.”

The Game Commission started Pennsylvania’s seven-year bald eagle reintroduction program in 1983, when three nesting pairs remained in the Commonwealth. The agency sent employees to Saskatchewan to obtain 12 eaglets from wilderness nests in the first year. With financial assistance from the Richard King Mellon Foundation of Pittsburgh and the federal Endangered Species Fund, the project spurred the release of 88 Canadian bald eagles into the wilds of Pennsylvania at Haldeman Island in Dauphin County and Shohola Falls in Pike County.

The Game Commission, partnering with other states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), helped to bring bald eagles back from the brink of extinction with reintroductions throughout the Northeast in the 1980s. The effort dovetailed with important gains made in improving water quality, which led to increases in the quality and quantity of freshwater fish, a staple in the eagle’s diet. Pennsylvania’s eagle resurgence also was likely stimulated by young eagles dispersing from the Chesapeake Bay, which now has more than 600 nesting pairs, and neighboring states that also reintroduced eagles.

Bald eagles are nesting in at least 31 of the state’s 67 counties, according to preliminary census tabulations. In June of 2006, there were at least 116 active nesting pairs (99 confirmed in 2005), and an additional 20 pairs appeared to have established territories, which typically is a prerequisite task to nest-building. Last year, new nests were confirmed in Bucks, Columbia, Fulton and Sullivan counties. Field staff also received reports of new nests in Adams, Lawrence, Luzerne, Mercer, Montour and Wayne counties.

The bald eagle is listed as a “threatened species” by the federal government and Pennsylvania. Bald eagles were upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” nationally in 1995; the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners upgraded them on Oct. 4, 2005. The USFWS recently closed a public comment period to remove the bald eagle from federal threatened species list. However, bald eagles still would be protected by the Bald Eagle Protection Act and other federal and state laws, even if it is delisted.

“The best scientific and commercial data available indicates that the bald eagle has recovered,” the USFWS reported in the Feb. 16, 2006, edition of the Federal Register. “The bald eagle population in the lower 48 States has increased from approximately 487 active nests in 1963, to an estimated minimum 7,066 breeding pairs today.”

The return of the bald eagle in both Pennsylvania and the contiguous United States is directly related to reintroductions and nest site protection. But, the bald eagle’s future hinged on the banning of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. Eagles, as well ospreys, peregrine falcons and a multitude of songbirds, were rendered reproductively incapable by DDT and the like, because the birds were bio-accumulating the contaminants the pesticides contained through prey consumption. DDT – banned nationally in 1972 – rendered the shells of bird’s eggs so brittle, they broke when sat upon.

Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings.” She referred to the interdependencies -that often aren’t easy to identify or interpret – of organisms on each other and the environment. When America was sprayed and dusted repeatedly and for decades with DDT, the environment was slowly loaded with toxins that eventually devastated the very existence of eagles and many other creatures that had thrived for centuries. Without emergency and sustained special assistance from wildlife conservation agencies, bald eagles would have been goners.

“Given their plight, magnificent appearance and historical significance, bald eagles have certainly captured the hearts and imaginations of Pennsylvanians,” said Doug Gross, Game Commission ornithologist. “Some observers have adopted nests for watching, keeping an eye on the eagles and for any threats to the nest. We frequently receive phone calls and emails from excited individuals who just saw their first bald eagle in the wild. We also hear from anglers, canoeists and birders who are taking the time to report what they believe is a new bald eagle nest or active nesting pair. We sincerely appreciate this assistance. After all, we cannot provide eagles with the special attention they sometimes require if we don’t know where their nest is located.”

Gross noted that eagles still are not nesting on some of their more historic nesting grounds, such as Presque Isle and the Susquehanna River’s West Branch, but they surely have experienced a resurgence that has filled a long, noticeable void in Pennsylvania’s wildlife community. If their progress continues, bald eagles one day likely will inhabit every major waterway and impoundment in the Commonwealth.

“Bald eagles are moving into a lot of new places, particularly along the North Branch of the Susquehanna River,” explained Gross. “I believe we’re missing some established nests there and at remote municipal reservoirs, along steep mountainsides and river banks and on islands elsewhere in the state. In fact, I suspect we’re missing one on a Susquehanna River island near Harrisburg.”

The state’s largest concentrations of bald eagles are found in three geographic areas: the expansive wetlands of Crawford, Mercer and Erie counties; along the lower Susquehanna River and its tributaries in Chester, Lancaster and York counties; and the Poconos and Upper Delaware River region. For years, Crawford County – particularly the Pymatuning region – had represented the state’s last stand for and largest concentration of bald eagles. This year, Crawford has at least 14 active nests (14 in 2005); lower Susquehanna River, 20 (16). In the Poconos, there are 21 nests (15).

To learn more about bald eagles and other threatened and endangered species, visit the Game Commission’s Web site, click on “Wildlife” in the left column, then select “Endangered and Threatened Species,” and choose “Bald Eagle” in the list of “Threatened Species.”

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