Nearly a third of Georgia’s 159 counties had bald eagles nesting this year, a count bolstered by steady increases in eagle nests and young across the state.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources aerial surveys in January and late March documented 135 occupied nesting territories, 118 successful nests and 187 young fledged. Each total topped 2009, when the statewide search revealed 128 occupied or active territories, 100 successful nests – those in which young are raised to the point they can fly – and 164 eaglets.
Survey leader Jim Ozier, a program manager with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section, had wondered if unusually cold and wet weather would undercut nesting. “I was somewhat relieved that the relatively harsh winter did not seem to impact production,” Ozier said.
Instead, bald eagles are flourishing. Some even nested near landfills this year, possibly – like gulls and vultures – finding a ready food source for scavenging among the trash, Ozier said.
Forty-seven counties had active nests. Coastal counties accounted for the most – 50. Chatham led with 15, but Decatur in Southwest Georgia along Lake Seminole followed with 12. Liberty had 10 and McIntosh, eight, Ozier said.
Georgia’s eagle population has been growing gradually for years. The iconic raptors showed a nesting dip only in 2008, a fluctuation that might be attributed to fewer nests discovered or reported instead of an actual decline, Ozier said. He added that better public reporting of nests might be partly responsible for the rising number of nests. Ozier encourages Georgians to let his office know of any eagle nests they see, by form (www.georgiawildlife.com/node/1322) or phone (478-994-1438).
Bald eagles are one of more than 600 high-priority nongame animals and plants identified in the Georgia Wildlife Action Plan, a strategy guiding conservation efforts statewide. But even though eagles and their nests are big – nests average 5 feet wide – they can be hard to find.
Bald eagles typically use the same nest, often built in the tops of tall pine or cypress trees. But each year some established pairs build new ones. If the new nest is near the old, it is usually easy to find, Ozier said. But some nests are much farther away and more difficult to pinpoint.
When eaglets leave the nest, they are the same size as adults but dark brown, almost black. Bald eagles gain the characteristic white head and tail feathers at 4 to 5 years old. Many of the first-year young head north during their first summer, Ozier said. Some return and most of Georgia’s eagles live here year-round.
Conservation laws, restoration work and a ban on the pesticide DDT have helped the bald eagle recover from near-extinction through much of its range 40 years ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the species off the federally threatened list in August 2008. This American symbol and subject of one of Georgia’s nongame wildlife license plates is still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and other federal and state legislation.
Bald eagle nests numbered in the single digits in Georgia when Ozier started searching for them more than two decades ago. Nesting territories steadily increased, then surged from the low 80s to 96 in 2006 and beyond 100 in recent years.
Though concentrated along the coast, bald eagle nests are found across the state, usually near major rivers or lakes where the fish, waterbirds and even turtles that eagles eat are abundant.
One of Georgia’s wildlife conservation plates features a bald eagle; the other, a ruby-throated hummingbird. Both are available for a $25 fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations or through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags). Sales of the plates are vital to the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state money for conserving Georgia’s native wildlife not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as rare plants and natural habitats.
Bald eagle/at a glance
- Size: Adults can weigh 14 pounds, with 8-foot wingspans. Males are slightly smaller.
- Prey: Fish are a staple. Eagles also eat waterfowl, turtles, snakes, rabbits and other small animals.
- Mates: Eagles mate for life. They often use the same nest, adding to it each year. (Nests up to 10 feet wide and weighing a half-ton have been recorded.)
- Offspring: Pairs typically lay one to three eggs by December. The young fledge in three months and are on their own in about four.
- Long-lived: Bald eagles live up to 15-25 years in the wild, longer in captivity.
- Nest watch: Georgians who see a bald eagle nest or two or more eagles together are encouraged to download and fill out the form at www.georgiawildlife.com (click “Conservation,” “Species of Concern,” “Bird Conservation” and then “Report Nesting Bald Eagles,” or go directly to www.georgiawildlife.com/node/1322). Send the completed form to Jim Ozier, email@example.com or Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Nongame Conservation Section, 116 Rum Creek Drive, Forsyth, GA 31029.