Wildlife Watching In Pennsylvania: Eagle Eyes

The first bald eagle I ever spotted in winter was riding an ice floe on the Delaware River. The floe drifted past my position near a boat launch ramp in Lackawaxen, just close enough so I could identify the fish it was clutching, a bass.
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An eagle soaring in Pennsylvania
An eagle soaring in Pennsylvania

The eagle spread its wings – its six-plus-foot wingspan looked improbably wide – and I felt a chill as this massive raptor glared at me with a fierce frown. My momentary fear was absurd, as bald eagles do not attack humans. But even so, I stood very still and watched.

The eagle folded its wings back up against its torso, secure on its island of ice. Returning its concentration to breakfast, the eagle devoured the fish’s flank from its talons.

That bald eagle was the first of many I saw that morning, and even now the memory captivates me. Catch sight of a bald eagle, and Jan Lokuta agrees, the moment is hypnotic. “We never fail to spot eagles, but I’m still awestruck by this bird,” says Lokuta, a volunteer for the nonprofit Eagle Institute, which has a field office in Lackawaxen. “It is a magnificent creature.”

It comes with a magnificent story, too. In pre-colonial times, approximately 100,000 bald eagles lived in the area we now call the Lower 48, according to the National Audubon Society. By the mid-20th century, however, this native North American bird – the icon of our nation – was facing possible extinction in every state except Alaska.

In 1960 the Audubon Society determined that the pesticide DDT in the fish that eagles were eating was resulting in thinner eggshells that broke before the embryos were ready to hatch. So in 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the bald eagle an endangered species, and five years later the EPA banned most uses of DDT.

The recovery of the bald eagle population has taken decades. As late as 1983, Pennsylvania could only account for three bald eagle nests in the entire state, so the state Game Commission began importing bald eagles from Saskatchewan. The hope was that the bald eagles, which mate for life and return to the same nests for 20 or more years, would take up residence here.

This reintroduction program was one of the most successful in the country. By 2005 Carl G. Roe, executive director of the Game Commission, could report that “bald eagles have at least 120 nests within the state’s borders.” And by 2007, Game Commission ornithologist Doug Gross could account for nests in at least 40 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. 

“I spotted a bald eagle in Langhorne,” reports Debby Howe, one of many Pennsylvanians who’ve recorded sightings on www.baldeagleinfo.com. “Big white head, big white tail, just soaring beautifully … I had to pull off the road before I had a car accident.”

I know how she feels. This summer, right in Milford, I saw a bald eagle on a telephone wire, king of the road. And I often watch eagles when I’m fishing the upper Delaware in spring.

But the best time to see them is winter, when bald eagles from Canada join Pennsylvania’s nesting pairs along lakes and, especially, rivers, swelling the resident population two- or even threefold. These eagles leave the frozen north because their cuisine of choice is fish. So unlike their meat-eating kin – the forest-dwelling golden eagles – they need access to water that isn’t totally iced over.

Thanks to improved human behavior and wildlife management programs, this summer the Federal government was able to remove bald eagles from its list of endangered and threatened species. And bald eagles continue to move into new places in Pennsylvania. Indeed, several months ago the Game Commission could confidently send out a press release announcing that “Pennsylvanians have a greater chance of seeing a bald eagle today than anytime in probably the past 150 years.”

Quite a success story, one that helps explain why, when I checked up on my canoe beside a lake in Pike County last winter, I noticed a bald eagle coasting above the tailwaters of our little dam. So I grabbed my binoculars, focused in on this most iconic of raptors and marveled at the wonderful creature soaring high above the Pocono Mountains. 

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