Number of eagle nests reaches new heights in Georgia

The number of active bald eagle nests in Georgia has reached a record high this year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The count stretches back to 1970, when there were zero nesting sites in the entire state, according to the state agency.

Statewide aerial surveys detected 218 occupied nest territories this year, five more than the previous record of 210 in 2015. It is the third straight year of more than 200 active nests.

Mirroring a comeback across the species’ range, bald eagles have rebounded in Georgia and are known to nest in at least 68 Georgia counties, according to survey leader Bob Sargent. The number of occupied nest territories in Georgia has almost doubled in the past 10 years.

“The recovery of the bald eagle in Georgia is a truly inspiring success story. This is a 7-foot-wide soaring example of the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act,” said Sargent, a program manager with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

At least 142 of this year’s nests were successful, fledging a total of 218 young eagles, an average of 1.5 per successful nest. Four nests appear to have fledged as many as three young. In 2016, 149 of the 201 occupied nesting territories were successful, fledging an estimated 240 eaglets.

The dip in fledgling estimates this year compared to 2016 does not concern Sargent. He explained that adults were still incubating eggs in many southwest Georgia nests during the follow-up flight in March. Since fledging of nestlings from those eggs, although likely, could not be assumed, those numbers were not added to the total.

The Nongame Conservation Section monitors eagle nesting through helicopter surveys in January and again in March and early April. The initial flights are focused on finding all active nests: those with eggs, eaglets, an adult in an incubating posture or evidence that eagles have been prepping the nest for use. The second round of surveys is aimed at determining the reproductive outcome of those nests and checking recently reported new nests.

Factors feeding the national bird’s recovery include a U.S. ban on DDT use in 1972, habitat improvements after enactment of the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts, protection through the Endangered Species Act, increased public awareness, restoration of local populations through release programs, and forest regrowth.

In 1989, the Southeastern recovery plan set 20 occupied nest territories in Georgia as a goal. “It was an especially low bar in terms of measuring success because the species was in such dire straits here,” Sargent said.

Yet while the recovery of the bald eagle is encouraging, “there continue to be reasons for concern,” he added.

Along Savannah River reservoirs, for example, nest numbers are lower than expected. One reason why is avian vacuolar myelinopathy, often referred to as AVM, a neurological disease deadly to coots and the bald eagles that…

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