MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Once teetering on the brink of nonexistence in Alabama, the Bald Eagle has made a triumphant return to the state, with pairs of eagles now nesting from Mobile County on the Gulf of Mexico to Lauderdale County on the Tennessee line.
If you ever had doubts that a well-designed conservation program would work, you need only look at the recovery program developed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to allay your concerns.
Except for a handful of migratory birds, Alabama's Bald Eagle population had become almost nonexistent from the 1950s and 1960s through the mid-1980s, when the state Department of Conservation decided to try to reintroduce the bird to the state. Over a six-year span starting in 1985, state wildlife biologists released 91 juveniles in Alabama.
In 1987, the state had the first confirmed nesting attempt by Bald Eagles since 1949. Sadly, it was not until four years later that the state had a confirmed successful nesting -- the first in 42 years.
Roger Clay, a nongame biologist with the DCNR, estimates there are "well over 100 pairs nesting in the state" now. Carrie Threadgill, also a nongame biologist with the agency, said she would not be surprised if the number of nests approached 200.
Clay said the DCNR gave up actively trying to locate active Bald Eagle nests several years ago, when the number in the state reached into the high 70s, "which far exceeded our targets." (But the agency still would like to hear from the public if they see an active nest. Report it to: 334-242-3469.)
Take those adults, add in juveniles and migratory birds that breed farther north but winter in Alabama, and Clay estimates there could be 300 or so eagles flying in Alabama now. More nestlings will be taking to the skies in coming weeks.
I personally have seen nine different Bald Eagles in Montgomery County on the same day. Earlier this year I spotted four juveniles in a tree near the entrance lake to The Waters in Pike Road. A half-hour later I saw two adults across nearby Lake Cameron. That prompted me to see how many I could find on the same day, so I drove to the Hope Hull area where I knew there was an active nest. I only saw one of the mating pair at that nest, but on other visits I have seen both birds. Then I drove to another nest near Pintlala, where I saw both of the mating pair that use that nest.
Since then, I also have seen two nestlings in the Pintlala-area nest.
But that almost certainly is not all of the Bald Eagles in Montgomery County. On multiple occasions I have seen another adult and a juvenile together in the same location along Woodley Road in southeastern Montgomery County. Last fall I saw four Bald Eagles (two adults and two juveniles) flying near that location. I have also seen juveniles near the Pintlala site. So there are many more Bald Eagles flying over the county than just those nine I saw in one day.
There are other hotspots for Bald Eagles in the state. Lake Guntersville, for instance, has long been a gathering spot for both resident eagles and migratory birds wintering in the state.
When the Alabama Ornithological Society met in January at Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge for its winter meeting, members saw at least eight different Bald Eagles during two days of bird walks, including at least one nestling. (One was on the Georgia side of the refuge.)
Another group also tracks Bald Eagles. A Facebook group was started last year by West Alabama public accountant Jennifer Dial. Members of Bald Eagles of Alabama post photos of the birds, as well as locations of sightings and nests. (Nest locations are not reported publicly to protect the eagles.) Jennifer compiles a monthly report of sightings and nests.
In November through January, group members spotted 33 nests in 23 counties ranging from the Tennessee line to the Gulf Coast. In January alone members reported 242 sightings of birds, including 117 adult birds, 120 juveniles, and five eaglets.
The resurgence of the Bald Eagle after the banning of DDT in the early 1970s and the eagle's placement on the endangered species list helped to fuel its recovery in the Lower 48 states (The Bald Eagle was never threatened in Alaska. I saw dozens of them in southern Alaska on a trip two years ago. In fact, my wife and I saw so many in the Juneau area in one day that we lost count. )
But the Bald Eagle nesting population may never have recovered in Alabama without the efforts of state wildlife biologists starting in the 1980s and continuing through today. Bird and nature lovers in Alabama owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Some Bald Eagle factoids:
-- Bald Eagles mate for life. Males and females share nest-building and brooding duties.
-- A Bald Eagle gets its white head and tail usually by its fifth year. Until then, juveniles are often mistaken for Golden Eagles, which are uncommon but occur in Alabama.
-- Despite its resurgence in the Lower 48 states, the Bald Eagle remains a protected species both under a specific law protecting the it and under the federal act protecting migratory birds. Shooting or otherwise harming a Bald Eagle can bring a fine of up to $250,000 as well as jail time. It also is illegal to disturb nests.
Audubon Teaches Nature -- The next Audubon Teaches Nature event will feature veteran naturalist Greg Harbor discussing the use of field marks to identify birds. It will be held at the Oak Mountain Interpretative Center at Oak Mountain State Park at 2 p.m. March 20. I highly recommend coming early to tour the Alabama Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates and releases native Alabama birds. For information, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
Alabama Ornithological Society -- The AOS spring meeting is scheduled for April 15-17 at Dauphin Island, allowing plenty of time for spotting both migratory warblers and shorebirds. For information on membership and meetings, go to: www.aosbirds.org
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper writer and editor who now writes regularly for wsfa.com.