I was photographing terns and egrets along the edge of Indian River Bay when an osprey dove straight for me. I was relieved that an empty nesting platform above was the raptor’s target rather than the shiny top of my head. I could clearly hear the bird’s talons scrape the wooden platform as it grabbed a branch in mid-flight and flew off to the south, carrying the nesting material.
A recent visit to Delaware Seashore State Park and surrounding areas, my first in six years, was inspiring. I expected to see ospreys — large fish-eating raptors — but I did not expect to see them in the huge numbers that were present.
In my week-long travels, ospreys were everywhere — sometimes with five, 10 or even a dozen visible at one time. Most of the man-made nesting platforms were occupied and I was surprised to observe a pair of ospreys nesting on the chimney of a bayside house on Quillen’s Point.
It has been nearly 52 years since Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring”, was published — sparking an environmental movement that continues to this day. Non-biodegradable DDT is concentrated as it moves up the food chain — termed “bioaccumulation.” It has its worst effects on animals at the top, such as ospreys and eagles.
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Carson’s documentation of the problems associated with the widespread use of pesticides — particularly DDT — was fought by the chemical industry. This is the same type of “pushback” against clean air, water and land, still displayed by the natural gas, coal, agrichemical and other industries today.
Fortunately for us, the environmental movement strengthened during the 1960s. DDT was banned from agricultural use in the United States in 1972. The amount of pesticide available to wildlife gradually became diluted, and that set the stage for the recovery of eagles, ospreys and other birds of prey.
The population surge that has occurred with Delaware osprey reflects a healthier environment and mirrors the growth of the bald eagle population in Pennsylvania.
A July report from the Pennsylvania Game Commission documents 254 bald-eagle nests in the Keystone State, with nesting eagles present in at least 59 of the state’s 67 counties. Twenty-two of the 254 nests reported so far this year are attributed to adult pairs that have not previously been documented as nesting in Pennsylvania.
It is difficult to believe that just 30 years ago there were only three bald eagle nests in Pennsylvania — all in Crawford County.
According to the Game Commission, the number of nests and the number of counties hosting nests are both all-time highs for the agency’s annual mid-year report. “Heartwarming,” is how Game Commission Executive Director Matthew Hough described these results.
“The all-time high numbers illustrate Pennsylvania’s bald-eagle population is better than ever,” noted Hough. “But these are only the ones we know about. There are more.
“Over my career with the Game Commission, I have watched this agency jump-start eagle recovery in 1983, and now I’m seeing the results of all that hard work,” Hough stated. “I, and I’m sure all Pennsylvanians, are proud of this amazing recovery. More importantly, more of us are seeing eagles than ever before. That never gets old. They’re such exciting birds.”
According to Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds section, the number of bald-eagle nests reported annually continues to mount as the year progresses. For instance, in 2013, the preliminary number of 252 nests ballooned to 273 nests by year’s end. Other years have produced similar results.
“The fact that the number of counties with active nests increased from 57 to 59 between the 2013 and 2014 mid-year reports also speaks to potential expansion in the bald-eagle population,” Barber commented.
Game Commission personnel cannot be everywhere, and the agency counts on reports from citizens to help them document bald eagle nests.
“As bald eagles become more common in Pennsylvania, the challenge to document bald-eagle nests could grow,” Barber said. “People who have reported a nest as active in a previous year might not realize they should report back each year to help the Game Commission track the population over time. Also, folks might assume bald eagles they’re seeing are associated with long-established nests, as opposed to new pairs setting up territories near established nests.”
Reports of bald-eagle nests always are appreciated by Barber and the Commission. According to Barber, the easiest way to report a nest is to contact the Game Commission through its public comments email address ( email@example.com). Use the words, “Eagle Nest Information,” in the subject field. Reports can also be phoned in to a Game Commission Region Office or the Harrisburg headquarters.
“This year as much as any really has driven home the fact that Pennsylvanians are fascinated with eagles and love watching them,” Barber reflected. “Eagles attract a lot of attention, and understandably so, but that doesn’t mean the Game Commission knows about nests in areas where you’ve been seeing them. So, please don’t hesitate to report these sites.”
In January, the Game Commission removed the bald eagle from Pennsylvania’s list of threatened species. In celebration of this milestone, a webcam was set up to monitor a bald eagle nest in Pittsburgh.
In the months that followed, more than 3 million viewers watched online as three eaglets hatched, then developed into birds strong enough to fledge their nest.
“This is one of the greatest wildlife success stories out there, and it’s not over,” Barber said. “Pennsylvania continues to sustain a healthy and growing bald-eagle population, and the fact that eagles are branching out to more areas of the state indicates there are more gains to come.”