The local bald eagle population – a population once in jeopardy of disappearing entirely – has been increasing in recent years, with sightings of the majestic raptors rising steadily.
“If people are observant, they’ll see eagles pretty routinely in Lebanon County,” State Game Warden Dustin M. Stoner, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s southeast region, told LebTown.
“I live in rural Lebanon County, and I can always tell when the chicken houses are being cleaned out,” he said. “You’ll see a number of eagles out to prey on those food sources – the remains of dead birds, because they’ll prey on carrion. They’re getting an easy meal.”
Read More: Where to spot bald eagles in Lebanon County
That doesn’t mean finding them, either in flight or on a nest, is always easy, however.
Stoner said eagle populations are growing for fairly obvious reasons.
“Well, we have good habitat,” he told LebTown during a recent telephone interview.
“Eagles primarily feed on fish. We have clean rivers and streams that have good populations of micro-invertebrates that feed the fish, and good populations of fish. We don’t have the situation we had back in the 1960s and ’70s with DDT and all those environmental concerns. They’re able to maintain successful nests now.”
Bald eagles are protected in Pennsylvania, although they are no longer listed as endangered or threatened, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. A few decades ago, eagles had almost entirely vanished from Pennsylvania.
“The recovery of the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has been one of the great wildlife conservation stories in the history of both the state and the nation,” the Pennsylvania Game Commission notes on its website. “Pennsylvania’s nesting bald eagle population has increased steadily and dramatically in recent years. As recently as 1980, the state’s known nesting population numbered only three pairs.”
They started gaining ground near the close of the 20th century, however – in part due to a government program to introduce eagle chicks imported from Canada – and by 2000, there were 48 active nests in the state. In 2006, that number hit 100 for the first time in half a century, and “the increases continued into 2008 when the state’s nesting eagles numbered more than 150 pairs, more than 200 pairs in 2011, and more than 270 pairs in 2013.”
There are believed to be more than 300 bald eagle nests in the Keystone State this year.
The Game Commission notes the “exponential increase in Pennsylvania’s nesting bald eagle population is part of a regional increase and similar increases are taking place in Chesapeake Bay and New York populations.”
The key is making sure the massive avians have good places to nest and hunt.
“Most of their nesting sites are in riparian corridors, along a river, stream or creek,” Stoner explained. “Primarily, they are feeding along those water courses.”
A riparian corridor is the biome of land and vegetation along a waterway.
“I can’t say those riparian areas have increased in acreage or availability,” he added. “There’s a lot of available habitat they haven’t utilized yet. But we anticipate their numbers and their nests will continue to increase for years to come.”
Unfortunately, eagles don’t always build nests in areas that are convenient to visit, and in any case, intruding too closely to an active nest is illegal. Stoner warned eager eagle watchers to avoid “approaching nest sites too closely,” especially when the eagles are incubating and sitting on eggs.
“If you get too close and disturb that adult bird and they abruptly fly from the nest, they could damage the eggs,” he said. “In certain situations, they’ll abandon a nest entirely because of a human presence.
It’s best to keep your distance and observe with binoculars or a spotting scope, he said.
“It’s illegal to disrupt a nest,” Stoner stressed. “I wouldn’t approach any closer than 300 yards.”
According to the Game Commission website, people who hike into an area inhabited by eagles should speak in low voices and avoid sudden movements.
“Don’t make the birds fly,” the website cautions on a page devoted to proper eagle etiquette. “Flushing an eagle off a nest may expose the eggs or young eaglets to cold or wet weather or a nest predator. It also wastes precious energy and may cause them to leave a valuable meal behind or abandon a nest that they are constructing.”
Pay attention, the site adds. “Watch how the eagle reacts to your presence – if it acts agitated, vocalizes repeatedly, or starts moving away, you are too close.”
Active nesting sites
In 2020, Stoner said, bald eagles had nine known nest sites within Lebanon County, including five that were active and produced young.
“We’re monitoring them,” he said. “We have breeding age adult eagle pairs, and you might also see young adult eagles in the area.”
Generally, he said, they start monitoring in January, when eagles “start to work on their nests. They’re starting to lay eggs by the end of January.”
That doesn’t mean they want people coming out in droves, even though the sight of an eagle can be exciting.
“Respect the privacy of the landowner,” the Game Commission says on its website. “Don’t tell everyone about a new eagle nest. It will attract people to nesting areas who will not use proper etiquette and other unnecessary attention to a nest.”
Anyone who’s eager to see the national symbol in its natural habitat should head down to the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 6,000-acre nature preserve situated in Lebanon and Lancaster counties, Stoner said. “I won’t identify any nest sites other than that. Most of them are on private property, and I don’t want to encourage anybody to go onto private lands.”
Also, he said, he doesn’t want to “draw attention to those sites and have a negative impact on the nesting season.”
But Middle Creek, which is famous for its stunning views of the annual migrations of snow geese and tundra swans, explains on its website how to see the mighty birds of prey.
“The best chance to view eagles on or near the nest is along the wildlife driving tour beyond Stop #3 and at Stop #4,” the website explains. The driving tour is open to visitors from sunrise to sunset from March 1 through mid-September. “The bald eagle pair inhabits Middle Creek throughout the year, fishing the shallow lake and surrounding ponds in all seasons,” it says. “As open water diminishes with the frigid temperatures of winter and as opportunity presents itself, the eagles sometimes switch their diet from fish to waterfowl, which is almost always available here. The eagles most often prey on weak and injured ducks, geese and swans.”
The best time to see eagles is “late winter into spring,” the site notes, “but eagles can been seen in all seasons.” The website further notes that bald eagles “have been full-time residents” of the nature preserve since 1998.
“The sizable stick nest, characteristic of bald eagles, sits in the forked branches of a sturdy red oak along the south shore of the lake,” the site explains. “The nest is secure within the restricted Propagation Area, where entry is prohibited. The eagle pair guards its territory and shows little tolerance for other eagles in the area, particularly other adult eagles.
“Between late winter and early spring, the eagle nest is visible from several locations around the lake. Just north of the Visitors Center, a parking lot on the east side of Hopeland Road provides access to Willow Point, an observation area with a panoramic view of the upper end of the lake. The enjoyable hike to Willow Point takes about 10 minutes and is an easy, mostly level walk. From Willow Point, the distant nest is visible to the east with a spotting scope or binoculars. A flooded stand of dead trees protrudes from the water across the lake. Eagles often perch in the snags, particularly in the largest of the stand.”
“Generally if you’re there for more than a few minutes, you’ll either see or hear eagles,” Stoner said.
On the driving tour, according to the website, visitors can stop just beyond the gated crossroads after Stop #3, where there’s a good vantage point to view the nest from the road.
“Stop #4 provides another location to spot eagles and the nest, probably the closest view,” it says. “A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope enhances eagle watching at Middle Creek, and late April is probably the best time to watch nesting activity. At this time, the nest is bustling with the adult eagles feeding and tending to the growing eaglets and deciduous trees have not leafed-out yet. Once trees attain their spring foliage, the eagle nest becomes concealed in the dense canopy.”
Further information on the eagles and other local wildlife is available at the Visitors Center.
In a Jan. 29 message of its Waterfowl Migration Update page, Middle Creek noted that a couple of eagles were also enjoying the migration season.
“Despite lower waterfowl numbers, immature bald eagles have been temporarily calling Middle Creek home,” the post states. “Four immature bald eagles were observed resting on the lake ice as they ‘observed’ the tundra swans and Canada geese avoiding the wind.”
The National Audubon Society website also notes in an entry on Middle Creek that eagles, along with hawks and owls, are drawn to “abundant rodent populations” in the preserve’s open fields.
“They’re really doing well,” Stoner said.
Previous reports have noted additional nests at Marquette Lake, by the Route 343/South Pine Grove Street bridge over the Little Swatara Creek, behind Tulpehocken Manor in Myerstown, at Quittie Creek Nature Park in Annville, and at other locations along the Little Swatara near Palmyra and Jonestown.
Anyone who’s willing to drive a little further can usually find plenty of eagle activity on the lower Susquehanna River, north of the Maryland line between York and Lancaster counties, Stoner said. “They can feed there all winter long,” he said. “Then it’s a short flight back to their nests for breeding season.”
Gregg Gorton, program director and vice president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, agreed that “the best place is usually Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.”
It’s about a 90-minute drive south of Lebanon, Gorton said, and especially when many lakes and rivers have frozen over, “the water near the dam stays open due to the turbines.”
Other protected areas that have seen an increase in eagle populations include the Delaware and Schuylkill river systems, Stoner added. There, Stoner said, “there are a lot of protected areas where those nest sites can be successful,” as well as protected state game lands and private properties where the eagles can’t be impacted by commerce or construction.
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