The Bald Eagle in Georgia

Population History and Methods

In the early part of the twentieth century, bald eagles commonly nested along Georgia’s coast and in the Okefenokee Swamp. Occasionally, they nested elsewhere in the state, likely in major river swamps and depressional pond and wetland systems in the Coastal Plain. By the late 1950’s, eagle numbers had declined, and the species was no longer considered common. By 1970, there was only one known successful nest, and it was located on St. Catherine’s Island. A successful nest is a nest that has fledged at least one nestling. In the decade that followed, the bald eagle was described as a rare transient and winter resident. There were no known nests in Georgia.

As with eagle populations elsewhere, the mortality rate and lack of reproduction that resulted in this decline were likely the result of habitat loss and environmental contamination by DDT and other toxic chemicals. DDT use was outlawed in the United States in 1972, and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973. That same year, Georgia enacted the Endangered Wildlife Act, which allowed listing and protection of rare animal species. Bald eagles were added as endangered species to Georgia’s Protected Wildlife List in 1974.

After several years with no known nesting activities, an occupied eagle nest was discovered on Georgia’s coast in 1978, and by 1981 there were two known occupied nests.

Georgia DNR started releasing young eagles in 1979. The birds were obtained from captive breeding facilities and wild nests in states where the birds were more numerous. Sapelo Island was the initial release site, and the program was later expanded to Butler Island and Lake Allatoona. Eighty-nine eaglets were released via a “hacking program” through 1995, but it is not known if this was a significant factor in rebuilding the nesting population.

The nesting population of bald eagles in Georgia has continued to grow, surpassing 100 occupied nest territories in 2007 and more than 200 nest territories in 2015.

As of 2017, surveys documented a record 218 nests at least 142 of which were successful. Bald eagles usually lay two eggs per nest, but occasionally lay three. Annual nest success ranges between 65-80 percent with an average of 1.5 nestlings fledged per successful nest. This iconic species is currently known to nest in at least 68 counties in the state. One-third of the nests are found in the six coastal counties, but territories are now found throughout much of the state where there is sufficient open water habitat and large trees for nesting, particularly along the lower Chattahoochee and Flint River corridors. Most nests are isolated from human structures and human disturbance, but a few eagle pairs have chosen to build nests in trees located a short distance from houses and highways. About 95 percent of nests are built in living, mature pine trees. To-date no bald eagle nests in Georgia have been found on man-made structures, but the similar-looking osprey routinely nests on bridges, poles, navigational markers, platforms, and cell phone towers.

All known bald eagle nests are monitored each January to determine occupancy, and again in March or April to determine productivity. Most nests are monitored via helicopter surveys, but a few are monitored from the ground, often with the aid of volunteer assistance. Additional nests are discovered each year through limited aerial searches and through reports from the public. By late winter most nests are home to young eaglets ranging in age from 4-14 weeks, or they are empty because the nesting effort failed or, in a few instances, the eaglets have fledged. There is a marked latitudinal gradient with regards to the timing of the nest cycle in Georgia. Eagles on the coast nest earlier and fledge young earlier than those in the mid-state, and much earlier than those nesting on the perimeter of reservoirs in the mountains. The causes of failure for eagle nests are varied as they are with all birds, including severe weather, death of one or more of the parents, insufficient food available (they mostly eat fish) to rear young, and predation of eggs and young by raccoons, great horned owls, and other wildlife. Annual monitoring also helps DNR to identify potential threats to eagle nests, as well as management needs. Resolution of habitat management conflicts on private property is a top priority. Recommendations based upon the federal management guidelines are adapted as suitable at each nest site in an effort to prevent harassment of the eagles that could lead to nest abandonment or nest failure, while also minimizing landowner restrictions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service downlisted the bald eagle to threatened in 1995, and in 1999 proposed that it be taken off the Endangered Species List. In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The species is still listed as threatened under Georgia's Endangered Wildlife Act, and is protected at the federal level under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. DNR does not have a good estimate of Georgia's actual eagle population, which tends to increase during the late fall and winter months with the arrival of wintering eagles from the northern U.S. Protections afforded to the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act have been largely responsible for its inspiring recovery in Georgia. However, there continue to be reasons for concern. Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy (AVM), a disease of the central nervous system, has resulted in the deaths of eagles and abandonment of nest territories at Lake Juliette and the lower part of Clarks Hill Lake in recent years, and could have a devastating impact if it spreads to other sites. Research has determined that a toxin found in certain species of photosynthetic bacteria (a “cyanobacteria”) causes the disease. This cyanobacteria has been found growing on hydrilla, an invasive species of submerged aquatic plant. American coots, which winter in large numbers in Georgia on reservoirs, forage on hydrilla, thereby ingesting the toxin in the cyanobacteria. The resulting symptoms include incoordination and an inability to fly, making these birds easy prey for eagles, which, in turn, ingest the toxin. To-date this problem has remained fairly localized. There are unfortunate downsides that come with an increased eagle population such as more birds being hit by cars as the eagles, mostly sub-adults, eat roadkill, incidents of eagles being shot, and birds dying from lead poisoning when they scavenge carcasses of deer containing bullets.

For more information on bald eagles in Georgia, contact the Forsyth office of WRD's Nongame Conservation Section, (478) 994-1438.

Report Nesting Bald Eagles

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources monitors all known bald eagle nests annually and works with landowners to help protect these sites from disturbance. Georgia's nesting eagle population has been increasing and new nesting territories are established each year. Bald eagles return to their nesting territories in early fall and usually lay eggs between December and February. Nesting efforts on the coast may begin and finish as much as two months earlier than those associated with reservoirs in the Georgia mountains. The eggs hatch about 35 days after being laid and the young leave the nest 12-14 weeks later, typically in late March or April, but infrequently in early May.

Nests of the osprey (another fish-eating bird of prey), as well as the species itself, are often confused with those of bald eagles. Like the latter species, ospreys often reuse the same nest year-after-year, and so their nests can become massive. However, ospreys routinely nest at the very tops of trees, often snags (dead trees), as well as on a variety of man-made structures such as navigational signs, cell and electrical towers, and wooden platforms. Eagle nests in Georgia have not yet been recorded on these structures, and only about 10 percent of the time are they found in dead trees. Most eagle nests are located just below the very upper canopy of trees, though there are exceptions to this rule. Interestingly, there are records of bald eagle nests that exceeded 15 feet in height and weighed over 2,000 pounds. In some instances eagle nests have remained in use for over 30 years, though in most cases they will use their nests for several years and then build and use an alternate nest nearby. Osprey nesting starts later (around March) than that of bald eagles and ends later (around June) in the year than that of most eagles. Both species have white heads, but ospreys feature a dark line through the eyes, have a white underside, and the top of their tails is brown. Adult eagles are brown with white heads and tails, and are much larger than ospreys.

If you have information that might indicate the presence of nesting eagles, please download and fill out this form and send it to Bob Sargent, bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov, or Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Nongame Conservation Section, 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, GA 31029.

National Bald Eagle Management Guidelines

In conjunction with the federal delisting of the bald eagle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released federal guidelines for the use of land owners, land managers, developers, and other interested parties, which are designed to minimize the possibility that human activities might disturb eagles or interfere with or cause their nesting efforts to fail. These guidelines define inner and outer buffer zones centered on eagle nest trees, and provide recommendations concerning types of activities such as tree clearing, road and building construction, prescribed burning, and ATV operations that can or cannot safely be conducted within these buffer zones during the nesting or non-nesting seasons. Note that in Georgia the nesting season for bald eagles typically spans late October/early November to late April, though this can vary by a few weeks depending on the location of the nesting birds in the state. If you have an eagle nest on your property and have concerns that a current or future activity may or may not be in compliance with these guidelines, contact Bob Sargent, bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov. For a copy of the federal guidelines, visit:

https://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/pdf/NationalBaldEagleManagementGuidelines.pdf

Identifying and Aging Bald Eagles

Some people may be surprised to find that many bald eagles in Georgia do not have white heads and tails. In fact, the species does not exhibit these diagnostic characteristics until it is four to five years old, which is when it achieves sexual maturity. Prior to age five bald eagles are usually referred to as sub-adults or immatures. First and second-year eagles have mostly brown heads and tails, gray bills, and brown irises. Notice the white “wing-pits” in the picture of the first-year bird below, and well as the white and brown mottling on the wing lining. The second-year bird has white mottling on the wing lining and on the breast and belly, and the feathers on the trailing edge of the wings form a ragged, uneven line because new flight feathers (shorter ones) are growing alongside older feathers (longer ones). The third-year bird has less white mottling on the wing linings and breast, shows much white on the head and tail, though there is often a dark line through the eye and the tail looks “dirty,” and the bill and irises are turning yellow. The fourth-year bird looks like an adult except for scattered brown on the head and tail.

Occasional sightings of golden eagles are reported from rural areas of Georgia, but mostly in remote forested and hilly terrain, and nearly always during winter months. Adult golden and bald eagles are easy to distinguish, but subadult individuals of these species can be confused. The pictures below depict a subadult golden eagle on the left and a subadult bald eagle on the right. Notice that the golden eagle’s white patches are located at the base of the flight feathers and the tail, and the tail has a broad, dark band at its tip. The young bald eagle features scattered white mottling. The lower legs of bald eagles are un-feathered whereas those of golden eagles are completely feathered.

Where to Go to See Bald Eagles in Georgia

The easiest way to observe a bald eagle in Georgia during the nesting season is to visit the Berry College nest cam at: http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/   Bald eagles, great horned owls, and ospreys have taken turns using the nest at The Landings on Skidaway Island during the winter and early spring, which you can view at: http://landingsbirdcam.com/  There are many other nest cams available online featuring bald eagles and other species nesting in other parts of the country. The best opportunity to see bald eagles in the wild in Georgia is to look for them on barrier islands and on large reservoirs and rivers during the winter months, because the state’s eagle population increases during this time of year due to an influx of wintering eagles from the North. Eagles are especially abundant on Lake Seminole, Lake Oconee, Allatoona Lake, West Point Lake, coastal areas in Chatham County, and on or near Sapelo and Cumberland Islands. If you find an active eagle nest, report its location to bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov Stay at least 330 feet away from an active eagle nest in compliance with federal guidelines. Getting closer not only violates these guidelines, it also could keep eagles from incubating their eggs or feeding their young, or it could cause eaglets to jump from the nest before they are ready to fledge.

What Does An Eagle Sound Like?

If you have ever watched an eagle flying on a movie or television screen, there is a good chance that the “eagle call” you heard on the sound track was actually the cry of a red-tailed hawk, which sounds like this (click on “adult scream”): https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/sounds

The bald eagle sounds like this (click on “chatter call”): https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/sounds

The decline and resurgence of the bald eagle in Georgia, eagle identification, facts and how to report sighting of a bald eagle nest.

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