The Return of the Bald Eagle

Kay Hinkle
Adams County Master Gardener

The bald eagle population is on the rise in Pennsylvania and is one of the great wildlife conservation stories. In recent years, two nesting pairs were reported to be raising their young near Lake Meade in Adams County. In February of 2012, several adult bald eagles brought a brood of their young to Lake Meade for fishing lessons. The young eagles whose heads were not yet snowy, but rather emerging streaks of various browns and grays, watched the adults and then tested their skills while the lake waters were still low. The stony shoals provided a perfect place for having dinner. The sunny side of the lake held prime perches and as many as 14 eagles were observed sunning themselves there over a period of weeks.

In 2009, a bald eagle census revealed 174 territorial nesting pairs in Pennsylvania. The bald eagle is mature at 5 years of age when the adult plumage is white. Mature males weigh 7-10 pounds with females weighing up to 14 pounds. Their wingspan is generally 6-8 feet in flight. In the wild, the bald eagle will live to 28 years and in captivity, as long as 36 years. There are no real predators, but man has brought risk to the eagle through the advent of power lines, road wrecks, gunfire and poison. Hence, various laws were passed to protect the mighty eagle as a symbol of this great nation.

The bald eagle is often called the American Eagle because it has been our national symbol since 1782 and is pictured on the great seal of the United States. It is the only eagle found exclusively on the North American continent, ranging from Alaska and south to the northern border of Mexico.

The bald eagle is a fan of open waters for fishing and large trees for nesting and roosting. The same eagle nest is often utilized from year to year and through the re-stabilization process can grow in size to half a ton or more. Adult eagles usually lay 1 to 3 eggs that hatch in 35 days. Eagles usually mate for life, often returning to that same nest year after year. Both the male and female build the nest, with the female doing most of the incubating. They lay their eggs in mid-January into February and the young generally fledge at the age of 3 months. One Ohio nest was observed to be used repeatedly for a period of 34 years and grew to be 9 feet in diameter and 12 feet high.

This writer has been fortunate to observe the bald eagle locally at Lake PaHaGaCo near Spring Grove this year, and in the Codorus Park near Hanover in years past. A nesting pair returned to the George B. Stevens Dam in Cameron Count y (northwest PA) repeatedly back in the 1980s when bald eagles were still scarce. More recently, a nest along the rail trail at the west end of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon near Wellsboro has become a bit of a tourist attraction. By comparison, this mighty fisherman is a common sight along the Bering Sea coastline of Alaska and when the tides recede, can be viewed in great numbers fishing in shallow water. Imagine a similar view of seagulls on the Eastern shore, only replaced by bald eagles in the shallow waters outside of Anchorage quite a sight!

The osprey, another bird of prey that enjoys fresh fish, is often confused with the bald eagle. The osprey is smaller, and along with a white head has white patches shaped like the letter "W" on the underside of its body. This distinct marking is easily visible when the bird is stretched out in flight; the osprey frequents central PA freshwater lakes to fish those waters as well - another beautiful specimen.

There is a prime observation point in Kempton, PA at Hawk Mountain. This location is near the Eastern Flyway where a variety of raptors can be seen from the various lookout points. Raptor is a generic term for bird of prey; the eagle and the osprey are just two prime examples. The best times of the year to observe the migration is August through December and again April through May.

This mighty bird is truly a national treasure. It is becoming a local treasure as well. Look for eagle sightings at this time of year when the adults have returned to raise their families. Look for the white head and soaring stature near your local freshwater lake. You can see the resting birds on large crags, or dead trees, where they watch for an unsuspecting fish or small animal meant to be a red-meat treat!

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