More than 200 bald eagle nests have been documented in Georgia for the second straight year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Aerial surveys started in January and finished this month counted 201 occupied nesting territories, 149 successful nests and 240 young fledged. Those totals are slightly lower than last year’s 210 territories, 170 successful nests and 270 fledglings, survey leader Bob Sargent said.
Yet 2015 marked the first time since surveys began that the statewide nest count topped 200, and Sargent, a DNR Nongame Conservation Section program manager, suggested that the difference between 201 and 210 nesting territories is negligible. “We have data since 1978, and there were several years where the upward trend briefly leveled out or dropped slightly.”
Despite this year’s dip, the overall trend still points upward for the national bird in Georgia.
Mirroring a comeback across the species’ range, bald eagles have rebounded in Georgia, going from no known nests in 1970 to nests this year in at least 63 counties, from Camden to Walker. Factors feeding the recovery included a U.S. ban on DDT use in 1972, habitat improvements following enactment of the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts, protection through the Endangered Species Act, increased public awareness, restoration of local populations through release programs, and forest regrowth.
“Parts of the state have nests where you wouldn’t expect them,” Sargent said, referring to sites far from the coast, reservoirs or rivers where the fish-eating raptors tend to concentrate.
But there are areas of concern, he said. Along the Savannah River reservoirs, for example, nest totals are lower than expected. A likely culprit is avian vacuolar myelinopathy, or AVM, a neurological disease deadly to coots and bald eagles. Research led by the University of Georgia is trying to assess the impact at Clarks Hill Lake, or J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir, an AVM hotspot. As recently as 2000 there were eight nesting territories recorded at this reservoir. That number has declined to two to three.
Sargent also noted the unexpected downside of an increased eagle population, such as more birds being hit by cars as the eagles, mostly sub-adults, eat roadkill, and incidents of eagles being shot. Although de-listed from the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2007, bald eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state law.
The public is encouraged to let DNR know about any eagle nests they find by reporting them online (www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/eaglenest), by phone (478-994-1438) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). These reports often lead to undocumented nests. DNR works with landowners to help protect those on private property. One tip: Ospreys and their nests are sometimes confused with eagles’, so if not sure, check out the differences online.
Sargent also explained that eagle nesting pairs and their young do not represent an actual count of all bald eagles in Georgia. Considering that it takes eagles at least five years to reach adulthood, and even then many won’t nest for one to three years, “There are likely at least twice that many more eagles in the state, especially in the late-fall and early winter months when northern birds migrate south,” he said.
The surveys are part of the DNR Nongame Conservation Section’s mission to conserve nongame wildlife – native animals not legally hunted or fished for – and native plants and natural habitats.
The resurgence of bald eagles is supported in part by Georgians who buy or renew a wildlife license plate – the bald eagle and ruby-throated hummingbird designs. These plates cost only $25 more than a standard state license plate and $19 of each purchase and $20 of each annual renewal goes to conserve the hundreds of Georgia plant and animal species listed as species of conservation concern.
Learn more at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support. See how that support is put to work www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/AnnualReport.
- Occupied eagle nest territories: 201 (28 percent more than the most recent 10-year average)
- Successful nests: 149
- Young fledged: 240
- Counties with active nests: 63 (62 in 2015)
- Lead nest counties: Chatham, 22; Decatur, 19; Camden, 13; Glynn, 10, McIntosh, 10; Liberty, 7
- A wetter than normal winter may have slowed the start of nesting in 2016, especially in north and southwest Georgia. “There were 16 eagles still incubating eggs during the second round of flights (March 15-April 8),” with half of those nests in southwest Georgia, according to DNR’s Bob Sargent.