These birdwatchers are, by definition, eagle-eyed.
Every three months, a group of volunteers treks out to Jordan Lake State Recreation Area in the wee hours – counting starts at 7 a.m. – to spot and count eagles in the wild. The sightings, sponsored by the New Hope Audubon Society, have been conducted on a quarterly basis since at least 1986.
A group of a half-dozen or so regulars – self-proclaimed bird nerds – operate from assigned sites spanning the shore of the 14,000-acre reservoir. They’re supplemented by first-timers and others who congregate at the beach by the Poplar Point Campground, where they’re led by Steve McMurray, a park ranger stationed at Jordan Lake.
“At this site, I always have at least one (eagle sighting), up to about nine or 10,” McMurray told Sunday’s group – which eventually swelled to a dozen people, including four youngsters – shortly before the counting officially got underway.
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Mother Nature wasn’t about to make a liar of him. Shortly afterward, McMurray pointed to a majestic bird, wings spread, soaring above them.
“That’s it! That’s an eagle right there,” McMurray exclaimed – eliciting a “wow” from one of the eagle counters. By the end of the 90-minute session, the group at the beach had sighted seven bald eagles; golden eagles are rarely sighted east of the state’s mountain region.
Nadine Pennell, 50, of Cary, was on hand Sunday with her 12-year-old son Charlie. He’s the birdwatcher in the family, and the bald eagle is his favorite.
“They look cool because they always have a determined look in their eye,” Charlie said. “I also love the sound they make.”
There was a time when eagle counting would have been fruitless, and depressing, anywhere in North Carolina.
In the 1970s, the state’s eagle population was virtually nil. The culprit: DDT, which wasn’t banned until 1972, which led to thinner eagle eggshells.
“Any time any birds would try to lay eggs, those eggshells were so thin they would break under the weight of the adult,” said David Allen, eastern regional supervisor of the state Wildlife Resources Commission’s wildlife diversity program.
The turnaround in North Carolina – which mirrors a nationwide trend – began in 1983, when state biologists started releasing juvenile bald eagles near Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County.
Today there are about 200 pairs of breeding eagles statewide, Allen said. When you include juvenile eagles, he added, “I’d say there’s at least 500 birds, maybe more than that, maybe significantly more than that” that call North Carolina home.
When eagles were on the endangered species list, the quarterly counts at Jordan Lake were probably more important than they are today, said McMurray. Now that the eagles’ population level has risen, he ranks “bragging rights” as the No. 1 reason for maintaining the counts.
The braggadocio peaked about a half-dozen years ago, in the midst of a drought, when a single eagle-counting site at Jordan Lake tallied 79 bald eagles.
Eagles are such cool, majestic birds that watching them as they’re soaring or diving or even perched is just a thrill.
“We had a lot of dead fish, because oxygen levels were so low, so we had fish washing up on shore,” McMurray said. “The eagles were having a feeding frenzy.”
Tom Driscoll, 63, a retired scientist and Audubon board member who’s one of the regular eagle counters, views the eagle count as a barometer “of how well we’re maintaining the lake. There has been a lot of controversy about what goes into the lake from cities as far away as Greensboro.”
Driscoll, an avid birdwatcher, also enjoys spotting eagles – especially since it gets the competitive juices flowing. Driscoll and the other regulars like to compare notes on how many eagles they spot.
Driscoll was one of a trio of eagle counters perched in the dense brush at Site 9 on the western side of the lake on Sunday, scanning the area with high-powered sighting scopes. One of his companions was David Anderson, 68, a former executive director of the San Francisco Zoo who now lives in Durham.
“Eagles are such cool, majestic birds that watching them as they’re soaring or diving or even perched is just a thrill,” he said.