Eagle numbers soar

An American bald eagle climbs into the clear blue sky above the lake. Photo by Kenneth Boone

The data confirms what Lake Martin eagle watchers already knew: 40 years after the near decimation of the bald eagle population, sightings of our national bird are on the increase here. Six Alabama Power Company employees counted nine eagles here during this year’s annual January survey, which covered 500 miles of Lake Martin shoreline. Though the survey was conducted in compliance with the wildlife management program included in the power company’s license to operate Martin Dam, Alabama Power Company has voluntarily participated in the surveys for more than 27 years.

“APC wants to be fully aware of the location of eagle nests before any construction project begins, so measures can be taken to prevent eagles from being accidentally disturbed,” biologist Chad Fitch explained.

Six adult birds and three juveniles were identified at Lake Martin this year, along with one active nest, but visitors to the lake area have sighted at least three nesting sites here, and sightings of the majestic eagle are commonplace. Wind Creek’s Park Manager Bruce Adams said bald eagles recently have been sighted at the park marina, and a nest is known to exist in the back of the slough behind the park’s marina. Last summer, a pair was seen frequently along Elkahatchee Creek and near Bay Pines.

Each year, the survey helps conservationists take stock of how well the eagles are doing.

“Survey crew members bundled up with wind-breaking float coats, thermal underwear, double gloves, double socks, ski masks and hand and foot warmers to stay warm while cruising the lakes in search of eagles,” Fitch said.

The numbers across the state were strong, despite a very brutal early winter. Bald eagle surveys are conducted across America during January because it is peak nesting season for the national bird.

Although the bald eagle is no longer listed as an endangered species, the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act requires a 660-foot protective buffer zone around an eagle nest tree during the October-May nesting season; a 330-foot buffer is required during non-nesting periods.

Overall, the bald eagle population appears to be increasing statewide and on APC reservoirs. The number of juvenile eagles recorded this year was higher than in previous years, Fitch said, which indicates that company lakes have suitable nesting habitat and a good food resource, which is mainly fish.

Nongame wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Carrie Threadgill said the sightings have become so common statewide that the department no longer keeps a record of them.

“These surveys are a snapshot, not an exact count,” Threadgill explained. “The observers follow the same route every year. For this particular survey, they take the survey from boats, and it’s not as easy to see as many on the water as if they were doing an aerial survey.”

Threadgill said it’s likely that Lake Martin  actually supports a larger eagle population than the number surveyors spotted here.

“As long as there is a good supply of fish, the lake could definitely support more eagles,” she said.

To identify a bald eagle in flight, first check out the wing positions. Eagles have flat, steady wings; whereas, the flight patterns are different for birds that often are mistaken for eagles. Turkey vultures tend to rock as they fly, and their wings are held at close to a 45-degree angle from the body. Osprey, on the other hand, fly with a bend in the wing.

Next, look for the white tail feathers and hood that are the most prominent field marks of the bald eagle. The rest of the bird’s body is covered in brown feathers, except for the yellow beak and legs.

Immature bald eagles have dark heads and tails, and their bodies may be mottled with white feathers. It takes about five years for an eagle to reach maturity and attain adult plumage, so if you see an immature eagle, it just might be one that was recently hatched right here on Lake Martin.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed bald eagles as endangered in the 1940s after they nearly disappeared, but under the protection of the Endangered Species Act and through concerted nesting programs in Alabama and elsewhere, the national bird now flourishes and was removed from the list in 2007.

“They are still protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, but in Alabama, they are doing great,” Threadgill said.