Three almost-ready-to-fledge eaglets stretched their wings and anxiously pranced around their tree-top nest and the adjacent branches. The eaglets waited impatiently for one of their parents to bring dinner. Seven birders kept watch nearby — the epitome of patience and persistence — with their binoculars and cameras trained on the nest. Several of them had been observing for hours that day as well as on previous occasions.
Finally, a mature bald eagle appeared — its brown and white feathers accented by the cloudy sky. The majestic raptor circled the nest with a large fish in its talons, but did not land. Instead, the eagle settled to the ground within eyesight of the nest — as if to tease the eaglets into flying. Ten minutes passed with no takers — even with the enticement of food, the hungry eaglets refused to test their wings.
The parent eventually relented and flew to the nest with the large fish and one eaglet feasted.
This was the scene as it played out on June 17, at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Fishery Center in Lamar.
My first local eagle encounter of the year occurred in la te April, as I was driving home from trout fishing near Huntingdon. Two men were glassing an expansive talus slope across the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River from where they were parked.
My pickup joined the other two at the Water Street pull-off, and I was quickly offered binoculars to view an eagle nest just above the rocky area high on the steep side of Tussey Mountain.
Eagle watchers are a friendly lot.
The nest — a loose pile of branches — appeared to be near the top of a large oak tree. I could barely make out the mature eagle’s white head without magnification. The binoculars turned the white speck into a bald eagle standing watch over the young in its nest.
One of the gentlemen told me that he had definitely observed two eaglets on the nest the previous week, but this week he had only seen one.
“I heard that, when their food supply is short, eagles favor one offspring over another. Maybe there is only one now,” he half asked and half told me.
A discussion followed about how eagles and other raptors begin incubating their eggs as soon as they are laid, rather than waiting for a full clutch. The result is that one eaglet usually hatches a few days before the second. When food is scarce, the first-hatched eaglet usually gets most of the food, while the second or third nestlings might die.
The same man said that he had seen both parents together at the nest several times.
“When they are together, it is easy to tell the female from the male, because the female appears so much larger, but I couldn’t tell you if the eagle on the nest right now is the male or female,” he said.
“I spent most of my life with little chance of seeing a bald eagle in Pennsylvania, and now I get to check out this nest on my way home from work each day,” the second man shared. “This is special.”
Not too many years ago, there were no bald eagle nests in our area. In 1983, there were only three nests in the entire state — all in Crawford County. This year’s preliminary survey, released by the Pennsylvania Game Commission on July 1, notes that the state now has 252 documented bald eagle nests — occurring in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. That’s an 18 percent increase from the 2012 mid-year report. A year ago, there were 206 confirmed eagle nests in 51 counties.
Game Commission Executive Director Carl Roe noted, that as eye-popping as the latest numbers might be, they’re far from surprising.
“We’re to the point in Pennsylvania where the bald eagle’s success is something that’s expected,” Roe said. “Year after year, their numbers grow. Year after year, their range grows broader.
“It truly is a remarkable story,” he added. “And remarkably, it’s a true story, and one that continually builds up to a better and better ending.”
It seems fitting to promote the wildlife success story of our national symbol on Independence Day weekend. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the effort to repopulate the Keystone State with bald eagles.
In 1983, the Game Commission launched a bald eagle restoration program. The agency, as part of a federal restoration initiative, sent employees to Saskatchewan to obtain eaglets from wild nests. Twelve 7-week-old eaglets were taken from nests and brought to special towers that had been built at Haldeman Island on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg and at Shohola Lake in Pike County. The birds were “hacked,” a process by which the eaglets are raised by humans, but with little direct human contact, and then released gradually into the wild.
During the following six years, 76 additional bald eaglets from Canada were released from these two sites under the auspices of the program. Funding sources included the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the federal Endangered Species Fund.
The restoration, aided by natural reproduction, was a huge success. By 2006, more than 100 nests were confirmed statewide. And now, the number stands at 252.
“It’s not likely to stop there, either,” said Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Non-game Birds section. “While the mid-year update on nests provides a good indicator of how bald eagles are doing statewide, it’s a preliminary number and additional nests typically are confirmed as the year goes on.”
In 2012, for instance, 206 nests were reported by July 1, but the year-end total was 237 statewide. The same thing nearly occurred in 2011, when the preliminary total of 203 nests increased to 217 by year’s end.
Locally, there are eagle nests near Route 22 at Water Street, on the ridge above Fisherman’s Paradise near Bellefonte, in Lamar, and - fittingly enough - at Bald Eagle State Park. Two eaglets fledged from the state park nest across from the Nature Inn, three from the Lamar nest, and probably two from Water Street. Several eagle watchers reported that the nest at Fisherman’s Paradise was unsuccessful this spring.
Eagles are special in most people’s eyes and always draw a crowd of eager onlookers. There is still time to observe activity around the nests at Lamar and Bald Eagle State Park. Keep your eyes open, because even if you do not make it to one of the local nests, your chances of seeing an eagle in the wild are greater now than at any time during the past century.
Antlerless deer licenses
Applications for antlerless deer licenses are first accepted on July 8. Information is avaliable in the 2013-2014 Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest. Antlerless deer license applications must be mailed directly to a county treasurer’s office.
Prowl the Sproul
The Keystone Trails Association hosts the tenth-annual Sproul State Forest hiking weekend July 19-21. Those interested may sign up for guided hikes that cover a wide range of length and difficulty. Guides are furnished by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and KTA. Also, a 10K run will be held July 20. For more information and registration visit the website www.kta-hike.org.
Fly fishing clinic
The U.S. Youth Fly Fishing Team will be hosting youth angling clinic at the H.R. Stackhouse School on Spring Creek near Bellefonte August 19-21. According to team representative John Ford, the clinic will feature world-class instructors. Both boys and girls ages 12-17 of any skill level are welcome. A fee to cover meals and lodging will be charged. For more information, call team manager Rich Reedinger at (814) 667-2727 or go to the team Facebook page.