MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It only has been a few decades since Bald Eagles were teetering on the brink of nonexistence in Alabama, but the national symbol has since made a strong return to the state. But to keep the Bald Eagle population healthy and on the rise in Alabama, it is proper that Alabamians learn and employ proper eagle etiquette -- especially during breeding season and around nests.
With the exception of a handful of migratory birds, Alabama's Bald Eagle population had become almost nonexistent from the 1950s 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. Four years later the state had its first confirmed successful nesting in 42 years.
Now there may be 100 to 200 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles scattered throughout Alabama. I personally have seen nine different Bald Eagles in Montgomery County on the same day, although four of them were immature.
While the comeback made by Bald Eagles in the state is a testament to the success of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' efforts, the future of the Bald Eagle in Alabama is still tenuous. That makes it crucial that Alabamians learn to exercise proper care around eagles and especially active nests.
Bald Eagles are especially sensitive to human activity. Just approaching a nest too closely disturbs the parents and could cause them to abandon the nest even when there are eggs in it.
While eagle mating season varies widely from one area to another, it is already started in the South. Bald Eagles already are building or rebuilding nests and egg laying should begin soon. A month or so later eaglets will start showing their heads at the edge of nests, and in two to three months start testing their wings on the edges of the nests.
When I write about eagles, I always get questions about where to see them. I'll answer those questions for individual birds, but I do not publicize the exact locations of nests. The kind of human activity such publicity would generate is certain to prove harmful to the nesting process.
But if you do locate a nest, there are certain guidelines that you should follow in viewing those nests.
Let me emphasize -- this is not just proper birding etiquette. Bald Eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Approaching an active eagle nest too closely or disturbing the birds in any way can bring hefty fines, and those laws apply to private as well as public property. Purposefully harming an eagle can -- and should -- bring jail time and fines up to $250,000.
So here are a few guidelines for viewing active eagle nests in the wild, culled from several state wildlife department websites:
-- Federal law requires you to stay at least 330 feet away from any eagle nest. That is more than the length of a football field. So if you want a good view, bring binoculars or spotting scopes. If you want photos, bring a camera capable of zooming in close. I use a 600mm lens or a "superzoom" capable of 50-power magnification.
-- Watch the eagles closely for any reaction to your approaching the nest. If an eagle stops what it is doing to watch you, then you are disturbing it. Back away. If an eagle starts calling loudly, you're too close. If it becomes agitated and flies around the nest, you're too close.
-- Be as quiet as possible. No loud music, no shouting or honking horns to get the eagle's attention. The idea is to not stress the birds -- and not attract the attention of state and federal wildlife authorities.
-- Never attempt to feed eagles, and that includes leaving food on the ground for them.
-- Respect private property.
-- Do not publicize exact locations of nests.
-- Remember that the biggest threat to Bald Eagle populations are human disturbances.
However, there is one way that you can watch eagle nesting activity up close and personal, without leaving the comfort of your home -- eagle cams.
These are cameras placed close to eagle nests that allow the public to monitor the nests without disturbing the birds. There are dozens of them available online.
One of my favorites is at Berry College, Ga., which is equipped with infrared cameras so you can watch at night. I was watching it one night when a Great Horned Owl buzzed the nest, causing the parent Bald Eagle to become highly agitated. I wasted a lot of time watching that eagle cam after that. The nesting pair there currently are rebuilding the nest, so hopefully there will be eggs soon. If so, I'll keep readers posted.
I know of no eagle cams in Alabama that can be seen online, but if readers are aware of one please let me know. However, there is a great Facebook page that monitors eagle activity in Alabama with lots of photos of Alabama eagles. Called Bald Eagles of Alabama, you can see it at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/959325667474180/
The Berry College eagle cams can be seen at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/nestcam/
A list of eagle cams can be found at: https://eagleholic.wordpress.com/eagle-cam-list/
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. In addition, Alabama state wildlife biologists have invested time and public money in that recovery.
You can do your part to keep that recovery on track by following proper eagle etiquette.
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society will hold its winter meeting at the Guntersville State Park Lodge Jan. 27-29. Field trips will visit Guntersville State Park, the Guntersville water front, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and the Guntersville Dam area. The Friday workshop leader and Saturday night keynote speaker will be Marshall Iliff , a Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird project leader. Details at: http://www.aosbirds.org/documents/WinterMeeting2017.pdf
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including its 81st Annual Birmingham Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on Friday, Dec. 23.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Birds of Prey: Masters of the Skies on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are showings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.
For details, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- Fins, Feathers and Flowers, a weekend waterfowl and wildlife program, will be Feb. 24-26 at Lakepoint Lodge at Lakepoint State Park near Eufaula. There will be field trips each day to the state park and to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, including pontoon boat trips on Lake Eufaula. Speakers will include Carrie Threadgill, nongame wildlife biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who will discuss colonial wading birds in Alabama, and the Alabama Wildlife Center will present its live raptor program.
For details, go to: www.alapark.com/Lakepoint-Fins-Feathers-Flowers
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.