The Eagles Have Flown

bald eagle
Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted June 17, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

As we pulled up to the salt marsh overlook to check on “our” eagle nest, we easily found an adult Bald Eagle perched on a snag at the edge of the forest, but the young birds were not visible. We consider them “our eagles” because we are the designated volunteer nest watchers for this nest for the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program.

For several months two young eaglets had been visible in the distant nest -- first as fuzzy, downy chicks that required some patience before we could glimpse them over the rim of the big stick nest, and more recently as big, brown youngsters which couldn’t be missed.

At first we were concerned when we couldn’t find them -- had something happened? But within minutes of arriving, we spotted the second adult as it came winging in carrying a fish. From a dense pine, just a few trees away from the nest, the two juvenile eagles took flight and followed the adult to an open space in the marsh.

The gangly kids briefly squabbled over the meal, then began to feed. For us, this was a significant sighting -- the young eagles had successfully fledged from the nest. The eagles had flown.

In the past few weeks, young Bald Eagles have fledged from a number of South Jersey eagle eyries, with more young birds poised to take their first tentative flight during the next several weeks. Over the past several decades, Bald Eagles have staged one of the most dramatic comebacks in wildlife management history. Rebounding from the ravages of DDT and persistent persecution, the Bald Eagle is now flourishing throughout its North American range.

Nowhere has this comeback been as dramatic as or more welcome than in New Jersey. From a low of a mere one pair in the 1970s and early 1980s, eagles have steadily risen to 82 pairs in 2009. This number even exceeds the “historical,” pre-DDT population estimate of 40-60 pairs. Bald Eagles are a member of the “sea eagle” group and are always found near water. Southern New Jersey’s salt marshes and bays provide excellent habitat for Bald Eagles, since fish make up a high percentage of their diet.

Southern New Jersey is the epicenter of New Jersey’s Bald Eagle population. Over 50 of the state’s 82 pairs are found in Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland, and Salem Counties. Very near to Cape May, a newly discovered eagle nest in Fishing Creek marsh near Rio Grande brings Cape May County’s known Bald Eagle population to 6 pairs, with birds also nesting on the Tuckahoe River, Great Cedar Swamp, East Creek Lake, Beaver Swamp, and near Swainton.

In our area, young Bald Eagles usually fledge in June. This is because the Bald Eagle is one of our earliest nesting birds, laying their eggs in late January or February. The adults endure freezing temperatures and winter storms, persisting to feed their young charges throughout late winter and spring. Through the summer they continue to feed their young (from one to three young per nest) even once they’ve fledged. The young birds finally strike out on their own, to disperse and migrate south, in August and September. So, even once this year’s batch of young eagles fledge, they will remain around their Cape May and Delaware Bayshore nesting areas for several months to come. The breeding adults are non-migratory and remain year-round near their nest sites.

For those of us who agonized throughout the long eagle decline, this is a heartening success story. Bald Eagles are not only back, they are again a daily sight in Cape May skies. On virtually any day of north, northwest, or west winds, an eagle or two (immatures and adults) can be found soaring over Cape May Point as they ride the wind to land’s end. On days of strong easterly or southerly winds, simply head up the Cape to areas such as Reeds Beach, Jakes Landing, or Stipson’s Island to watch the now ever-present eagles as they hunt over the salt marsh, creeks, and bays.

In spring and fall, “local” eagles are augmented by migrants and can be numerous. We recently counted 22 on the Great Egg Harbor River in April (with 17 in sight at once) and have seen as many as 28 on the Maurice River in late fall and early winter. Upwards of a dozen fall migrants can be tallied on a good day at the Cape May Point Hawkwatch from late August through November.

The eagles are back, once again gracing Cape May’s skies, as they bring beauty and drama to the billowing cumulus that builds daily over Cape May Point. Somehow the picture seems more complete when an eagle joins the circling Osprey and vultures high overhead. The big predator is back and a welcome sight, and cause for a Cape May celebration.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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