Population History & 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 1950s, eagle numbers had declined, and the species was no longer considered common in Georgia. By 1970, there was only one known successful nest, and it was located on St. Catherines Island. A successful nest is a nest that has fledged at least one nestling (also called an “eaglet”). 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 high mortality rate and lack of successful 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. The bald eagle was added as an 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 (Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area) 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. The 2017 surveys documented a record 218 nests at least 142 of which were successful.
In 2018, DNR downsized surveys from statewide to covering about two-thirds of the state each year. In that year, nearly 110 eagle nesting territories in the six coastal counties and an area bounded roughly by interstates 16 and 85 and the South Carolina line, were documented. Those nests fledged an estimated 127 young. In 2019, DNR counted 160 eagle nest territories in the six coastal counties and a western span of Georgia framed roughly by interstates 20 and 75 and the Alabama and Florida state lines. Add eight nests monitored by volunteers or DNR staff and the results included 168 nests and an estimated 195 young fledged. Considering the number of nests the DNR surveys usually find in north Georgia during the every-other-year surveys of that area, it’s likely the state had more than 200 bald eagle nests in 2019 for the fifth straight year.
The survey change in 2018 maintains standardized monitoring, syncs with the species’ range-wide comeback and mirrors slimmed-down eagle nest checks in some neighboring states. It also frees money for other needed conservation projects. Conserving bald eagles remains a priority. The species is state-listed as threatened and a species of conservation concern in the State Wildlife Action Plan. Survey leaders determined that halving the effort would not compromise DNR’s ability to identify and address any decline in productivity of our nesting eagles. That consideration was the most crucial for the change.
While the 2019 bald eagle nest survey covered the six coastal counties and much of southwestern Georgia, eight nests in areas not usually checked also were reported and monitored by volunteers and DNR staff. The totals:
- Six coastal counties (including barrier islands): 74 occupied nest territories, with 62 fledging at least one eaglet (84 percent success rate; above average) and 88 young fledged (1.2 per occupied territory; average). New occupied nest territories: five.
- Western Georgia (Florida line to the south, I-75 to the east, I-20 to the north, Alabama line to the west): 86 occupied nest territories, with 59 fledging at least one eaglet (69 percent success; below average) and 95 young fledged (1.1 per occupied territory; below average). New occupied nest territories: eight.
- Totals (including data from volunteer and staff monitors, a few nests east of I-75): 168 occupied nest territories, with 127 fledging at least one eaglet (76 percent success rate; average) and 195 young fledged (1.2 per occupied territory; average).
- Notes: Hurricane Michael destroyed 14 nest trees or nests, all in Seminole and Decatur counties. In 12 of the 14 cases, 60–70 percent of trees in the surrounding forest were leveled. Only one new nest was found in this region. Michael substantially reduced the availability of suitable nest trees, likely meaning many eagle pairs that nested in the region when it was last surveyed in 2017 did not nest there this year. Also, during the March survey flights only two coastal nests checked had an eagle still incubating eggs. Yet in southwest Georgia adults were incubating eggs on 12 nests monitored, an unusually high percentage so late in the nesting season. Habitat damage from the hurricane combined with much higher than average rainfall October-January likely contributed to delays in mating and nesting activities. High water levels, which increase flow rates, add turbidity and disperse fish, can also reduce eagle fishing success rates, delaying the nesting cycle. A rainy nesting season can increase mortality of egg embryos (and nestlings), as well. The result: Eagles can be incubating non-viable eggs a week or more after they normally would have hatched. At seven of the 12 southwest Georgia nests where adults were still incubating eggs this March, in 2017 the eagles had been incubating eggs at the nests 40 days earlier.
Bald eagles usually lay two eggs per nest, but occasionally they lay three. Annual nest success ranges between 65–80 percent.
This iconic species is known to nest in nearly 70 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.
Bald eagle nests are monitored in 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 volunteers. 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 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, birds dying from consuming rodents killed by the ingestion of rodenticides, occasional electrocutions, incidents of eagles being seriously injured in territorial conflicts with other eagles, 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 Wildlife 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 11–14 weeks later, typically from late March to early May but occasionally in June.
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 late June to early July) 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. In flight, eagles tend to hold their wings flat and straight, whereas the wings of ospreys tend to be angled and bowed down.
Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Wildlife 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 mid-May, 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, firstname.lastname@example.org. View a copy of the federal guidelines.
Identifying & 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 email@example.com 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