Sandy Goodwin saw her first bald eagle years ago at the Philadelphia Zoo.
At the time, places such as zoos provided about the only opportunity to see a bald eagle, especially in Pennsylvania.
The effects of pesticides such as DDT, along with water pollution and other factors, decimated the bald eagle population a few decades ago. In the early 1980’s only three nesting pairs of eagles remained in the state.
“You never thought you’d see one in the wild,” said Goodwin, who is vice president of the Greater Wyoming Valley Audubon Society.
Today, one doesn’t have to go to a zoo to see a bald eagle, thanks to a remarkable turnaround.
Last week the Pennsylvania Game Commission released its preliminary count of bald eagle nests statewide, and the numbers chart yet another high point in an impressive upward trend.
So far this year, 252 eagle nests have been confirmed throughout the state, with nesting eagles present in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
That’s a sharp increase from the previous mid-year report, which the Game Commission typically releases just before the Fourth of July.
A year ago, there were 206 confirmed eagle nests in 51 counties.
Since the PGC began it’s seven-year bald eagle restoration program in 1983 and released 88 eaglets over the course of the program, the recovery has been marked with success.
By 1998, Pennsylvania was home to 25 pairs of nesting bald eagles, and that figure doubled three years later. In 2005, the Game Commission took the bald eagle off the state’s endangered list and reclassified it as a threatened species.
A year later, more than 100 nests were confirmed statewide. And now, the number stands at 252.
That’s good news for those who enjoy seeing the nation’s symbol in the wild.
“If you’re out and about you have a pretty good chance of seeing one,” Goodwin said. “When we do our bird counts, we never used to get a bald eagle. Now, we often get at least one.”
There’s a chance that the current nest figure could continue to rise, according to Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds section. While the mid-year update on nests provides a good indicator of how bald eagles are doing statewide, Barber said it’s a preliminary number and additional nests typically are confirmed as the year goes on.
In 2012, for instance, 206 nests were reported preliminarily, but the year-end total was 237 statewide. In 2011 the preliminary total revealed 203 nests but the figure increased to 217 by the end of the year.
There’s a chance that this year’s total could increase as well.
“It’s hard to say, but in all likelihood more remain to be counted,” Barber said. “Our tally was 249 just a week or two ago, and three more were reported since that time, so I’d be surprised if the preliminary number doesn’t grow.”
Locally, eagles can be found virtually anywhere along the Susquehanna River or other large bodies of water. Professional naturalist Rick Koval said he has counted four nesting pairs in a single year in Luzerne County and as many as 25 eagles in one day while surveying migratory birds flying over Council Cup near Wapwallopen.
“I’ve been birding in Luzerne County for almost 30 years and back then seeing an eagle was almost unheard of,” Koval said. “Now, you can take a boat ride on any stretch of the river and almost gaurantee a sighting.”
Sightings aren’t limited to places along the Susquehanna River either. Diane Madl, environmental education specialist at Nescopeck State Park, said she has seen eagles fly over the park and the Lehigh Gorge area over the last wo months.
“It’s certainly a lot more common to see than it was years ago,” Madl said.
While the bald eagle population grows stronger each year in Pennsylvania, the birds remain classified as a threatened species statewide.
Koval said despite the success, bald eagles still face challenges from wind turbines places on migration routes, timbering of nest trees in riparian corridors and even a threat to a food source with the die-off of smallmouth bass in the lower stretches of the Susquehanna River.
“The recovery plan in the endangered species act works, and the bald eagle is an example of that,” Koval said. “But we need to continue to protect and respect this species to make sure we don’t end up listing it again.”