Bald eagles, still rare, slowly make a comeback

A Bald Eagle takes off from his perch in a tree on the shore of Jordan Lake in June 1999.
A Bald Eagle takes off from his perch in a tree on the shore of Jordan Lake in June 1999. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

They’re as rare as civility in politics. Their eyes burn like lasers as they soar over sounds and reservoirs, swooping down to snag a fish in their talons.

The bald eagle once was almost extinct. Today, numbers remain low with an estimated 500 to 1,000 in North Carolina.

A sighting of this majestic bird of prey is a thrill for the few so lucky. If you set out to see an eagle in the wild, you must be patient, but it can be done, even in heavily populated Wake County. During the last year, eagle sightings were reported at Lake Johnson Park, the intersection of N.C. 54 and 55, Lake Wendell, near Lake Lynn and Umstead Park, and near Mission Valley Shopping Center.

Several years ago, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission established a bald eagle observation platform at Jordan Lake off Martha’s Chapel Road in Chatham County. Eagle viewing from home also is available via the Jordan Lake EagleCam.

David Allen, a wildlife diversity supervisor for the state Wildlife Resources Commission, says at least one-third of the eagle population is in the northeast corner of the state.

“Eagles can be found in almost every county in North Carolina,” he said. “At least they fly through even though they don’t have nesting places.”

Allen, whose work involves nongame animals and fish, says the abundance of large bodies of water in the northeast is among reasons for the high concentration of eagles. Other factors include the close proximity to Tidewater Virginia, where eagles are more plentiful and the eagle restoration program at Lake Mattamuskeet in the 1980s.

“About 24 birds were captured in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alaska for the restoration project,” Allen said. “The chicks were placed in a tower built at Lake Mattamuskeet and fed without human imprint. Eventually they left the nest and learned how to hunt.”

Before that, North Carolina’s eagle population was all but wiped out because of the use of DDT. The Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, through the state’s income tax check off, helped fund a biologist who was responsible for restoring eagles at Lake Mattamuskeet in 1983.

From a time when there were no breeding pairs in the state, now an estimated 125 nesting pairs exist.

In addition to its uniqueness in nature, the bald eagle is held in high regard because it is the national bird and appears on the American seal. This designation in 1789 was not without political controversy. Historians report that Benjamin Franklin objected, calling the eagle “a bird of bad moral character and very lousy.” He favored the turkey as being a “more respectable bird and one withal a true original native of America.”

President John F. Kennedy later wrote about the eagle: “The founding fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America.”

The eagle is protected under the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Disturbing an eagle or its nest in almost any way is a criminal act punishable by a $100,000 fine, imprisonment for one year, or both, for a first offense.

Allen, the wildlife supervisor, remembers 10 years ago when a landowner on the coast intentionally cut down a tree containing an eagle’s nest.

“He eventually spent time in prison and donated $90,000 to a bald eagle conservation project,” he said.

As for the future of the bald eagle, Allen says, “I think they’ll do fine for the foreseeable future, but we never know what the long run will bring.”