Year of the Eagle

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The nation’s symbol of freedom makes a comeback after years of decline.

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By Damon M. Banks

Few sights can compare to the majesty of a bald eagle gliding through the air—the combination of raw power and amazing agility. Selected as the nation’s emblem in 1782 for its long life, great strength and regal look, the bald eagle remains the ultimate symbol of freedom for the United States. Whether seen soaring among the clouds or with outstretched wings on the Great Seal of the United States, the bald eagle remains immortalized in the hearts and minds of  millions of Americans.

A Stately Species

A glimpse of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is truly a breathtaking sight. Dark brown with a striking white head and tail feathers, the females are larger than the males, standing about 3 feet tall and weighing as much as 14 pounds with a wingspan of up to 8 feet. Found only in North America, the northern birds are significantly larger than their southern relatives. They live for 15 to 25 years in the wild—longer in captivity—and mate for life. Covered with approximately 7,000 feathers, these raptors can soar at altitudes of 10,000 feet, flying as fast as 30 mph and diving through the sky at up to 100 mph.

The eagle’s high-pitched vocalization is very distinct, and generally used for communication between the male and female, or to warn of potential danger. Though their eyes are about the size of a human’s, their eyesight is nearly four times as keen, making hunting much easier when flying high above the trees.

Bald eagles are named for their stately white heads, which the birds develop at around 5 years old. The name comes from the term “balled,” meaning “shining white” in Middle English. With such an eye-catching crown, people often miss the opportunity to observe the eagle’s tools for survival, their distinct beak and talons. While the beak is a precise weapon, it’s also delicate enough to groom a mate’s feathers or feed a newly hatched chick. The talons are used for much more than simply gripping the trees while perched; they actually kill the eagle’s prey by penetrating the flesh. Extremely agile, the bird can open and close these deadly weapons at will, and can carry away a meal that weighs up to about 4 pounds in a matter of seconds.

With most bald eagles living along the coastline, their regular diet includes fish and small waterfowl (such as coots during the nesting season), but also may consist of other birds, turtles, small mammals and carrion. Close proximity to open water is always favored when looking to nest and, in Georgia, these nests are mostly along the coast and near major rivers, wetlands and reservoirs in the southern and central parts of the state, but can also include the barrier islands, marsh islands and nearby mainland. However, reservoir construction has increased suitable inland nesting habitats.

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Bald eagles are a remarkable sight on Sea Island.

Sea Island is home to at least two nesting pairs of bald eagles, which don’t migrate, so they remain a favorite sight along the beach or golf courses throughout the year. The first of these nests is in one of the tall slash pine trees, which stands just before the marshland on the causeway when arriving on the island. According to Sea Island’s naturalist, Raleigh Nyenhuis, the nest itself measures approximately 6 feet across and at least 4 feet deep. The second nest is on the Ocean Forest portion of the island in another tall pine tree near the golf course. These birds of prey seem at home on the island and, with each nest producing between two and three young each year, the hope is that additional bald eagles will choose to stay in the area over time.

A National Emblem

It’s believed the U.S. was home to as many as 100,000 bald eagles more than two centuries ago, as the Second Continental Congress began shaping the future of the fledgling country by signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With so many monumental events happening at this time of the nation’s history, the newly formed country was looking for strength and salvation. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were part of the committee established to develop the official seal of the United States of America, but only four of their ideas made it to the final seal: the motto of “E pluribus unum,” which is Latin for “Out of many, one”; the Eye of Providence; the date of independence; and a shield.

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Bald eagle nests, like the one pictured here at Sea Island, can span 6 feet across and 4 feet deep.

It was six years and two committees later that Philadelphia lawyer William Barton submitted the effortless drawing of an eagle majestically displayed as the symbol of supreme power and authority in May 1782. In the next draft, Secretary of Congress Charles Thompson replaced Barton’s crested imperial eagle with the native American bald eagle, a symbol that would endure. Congress finally agreed and, several months later, an eagle holding a bundle of arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other was revealed and ultimately accepted as the official seal.

Although there have been many changes in the U.S. during these past two centuries, and even modifications to the emblem, the design and message of strength remains the same. It has been said that Franklin was unhappy with the bald eagle’s selection because it scavenges and steals the spoils from other birds—his preference was a turkey. In contrast, President Kennedy would later praise the Founding Fathers for choosing a great bird aptly symbolizing the strength and freedom of America.

Conservation and Comeback

By the time of Kennedy’s presidential term in the early 1960s, however, fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. While the species’ first major decline likely started in the mid- to late 1800s, as waterfowl and other prey declined, other factors contributed to the decrease in bald eagles after World War II. The pesticide DDT made its way into waterways where it was absorbed by fish, in turn eaten by eagles. The chemical prevented the birds from producing strong eggshells, causing the eggs to crack or never hatch. Lead poisoning was another cause of death for bald eagles; some ate waterfowl containing lead shot, either from hunting or inadvertent ingestion.

The bald eagle, on the brink of extinction, was one of the first species to benefit from protection by the Endangered Species Act precursor in 1967. Fortunately, following decades of conservation efforts by several state and federal agencies, the number of nesting bald eagles dramatically improved. As a result, the bald eagle was removed from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants in 2007, but they remain protected by Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. As of 2006, the latest data available from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 9,700 nesting pairs are thriving in the lower 48 states. In Alaska, the bald eagle population is exponentially greater—an estimated 30,000 birds, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game.

The numbers continue to improve in the southeast U.S. and in Georgia specifically—where eagle numbers had declined during the 1950s and 1960s to only one known successful nest in 1970 on St. Catherines Island. After several years with no known nests, an occupied eagle nest was found on Georgia’s coast in 1978, starting an upswing. Today, there are about 170 known nests in Georgia, and nearly 40 percent of all nests in the state are located along the coast, with Chatham County having the most nesting pairs of bald eagles. “I believe the recovery of this species is a great conservation success story,” says Mike Harris, chief of nongame conservation at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “With no nesting bald eagles as late as the early 1970s in Georgia, these numbers today are very positive.”

From 1979 to 1995, the department released 89 eaglets in Georgia. These eaglets came from captive breeding programs and wild nests in other states that had larger populations of the species. It’s unknown, however, if the release program significantly affected the eagle’s comeback in the region.

The bald eagle population looks to be improving each year. Of course, there will be setbacks, just as Utah witnessed in December 2013 when a large number of bald eagles died in a matter of days, likely due to West Nile virus. Eagles also are susceptible to poisoned baits used for predator control and euthanized carcasses, as well as a fatal neurological disease called avian vacuolar myelinopathy linked to toxic algae that can be ingested while feeding. Nevertheless, conservation efforts have proven successful throughout Georgia.

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Steve Hein introduces Georgia Southern University’s mascot, Freedom, to a crowd.

Steve Hein, founder and director of the Center for Wildlife Education at Georgia Southern University, has had the privilege of working with eagles for 20 years and the honor of flying GSU’s male bald eagle mascot named “Freedom” before thousands. “To this day, I remain awe-struck when encountering one of these bald eagles in the wild,” Hein says.

As both human and eagle populations continue to grow, these two species will continue to be in contact with each other even more often. Experts stress that public education is necessary to ensure attitudes and policy conducive to long-term eagle survival. With everyone working together, the bald eagle appears poised to keep soaring, preserving the nation’s symbol of freedom for generations to come.

Birding on Sea Island

With a seaside destination as expansive as Sea Island, there are plenty of prime locations to spot bald eagles along with a number of other amazing bird species that call the island home.

Bald eagles are seen monitoring the island from one of the high pine trees or telephone poles, as well as flying along the Black Banks River hunting for their next meal. “Interestingly, I have spotted one of the Sea Island bald eagles simply standing on the beach on the southernmost portion of our island during low tide,” says Raleigh Nyenhuis, naturalist at Sea Island. “I’m not certain what it would be looking for at low tide, but I see this several times every summer.”

Another bird of prey found at the resort is the osprey, often mistaken for a bald eagle. “With bald eagles being opportunistic, and even kleptoparasitic (stealing food from others) feeders, it is not rare to find an eagle chasing down an osprey for their fish,” Nyenhuis says. Some birders might also catch a glimpse of fledgling bald eagles learning to fly during early summer—though they’re not yet possessing the grace of mature eagles, it’s thrilling to watch.

Sea Island provides a multitude of great areas for birding and, with the climate and the local ecosystem, there is something for both the bird expert and the novice naturalist alike throughout the year. The beach is always a great location, especially at high tide. For many species often found in the marshland areas, one of the best viewing locations is on the dock at The Cloister.

Nyenhuis’ secret spot is the large sandbar off of the northern beach, which can be reached by a public access on 36th Street. “This sandbar is known as Pelican’s Spit and, during low tides, almost every species of beach bird can be found [here],” she says. “This is also a large nesting area, so with a good pair of binoculars or a scope, seeing the abundance of birds on this sandbar is remarkable.” M

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