Pair of bald eagles build nest in Harmar

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, March 4, 2013, 1:06 a.m.

Flying improbably sideways through a thicket of treetops along a ridge overlooking Route 28 in Harmar this weekend, two bald eagles yanked off 8-foot-long branches and carried them like prized fish to their nest.

The Harmar couple is the third nesting pair of eagles confirmed in Allegheny County this season — the most in at least 50 years, according to officials from the Audubon Society and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Although the insecticide DDT decimated eagle populations nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s, the breed that symbolizes the United States made a comeback after the chemical was banned and states, including Pennsylvania, rolled out reintroduction programs.

The number of nesting eagles throughout the state has increased steadily by 15 percent a year, the Game Commission says. The most recent count, from 2011, had 217 confirmed nests throughout Pennsylvania.

As evidence of the recovery of this bird of prey and the region's waterways, at least one pair of eagles is nesting along each of the county's three main rivers: Allegheny (Harmar), Ohio (Crescent Township) and Monongahela (Hays section of Pittsburgh).

The Game Commission confirmed the Pittsburgh nesting on Feb. 19; Dan Puhala of the Game Commission and the Audubon Society verified the Harmar nesting this weekend.

The eagles in Crescent are in their third year of nesting and reared one bird last year.

“Most of these birds have been scouting out this area for years,” said Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

During this winter and the previous winter, Game Commission offices received more reports of eagle sightings than ever before, wildlife conservation officer Beth Fife said.

“We knew it was going to happen,” she said. “It was just a matter of time for the eagles to nest here.”

Bonner and Audubon conservation director Brian Shema watched a pair of eagles build a nest Saturday on a ridge above Route 28 near the Hulton Bridge.

They were not sure if the pair will lay eggs this year but they and Fife said the birds are likely to return next year to the nest site or one nearby.

Eagles, which have 7-foot wingspans and are thought to mate for life, return annually to the same nest, adding more material each year. Shema said he has seen nests as large a 10 feet wide, 8 feet deep and weighing a ton or more.

The birds, whose population plummeted to three pair statewide in 1980, have been spending more time along the region's rivers.

“We have had a decent population here in the winter for years,” Shema said.

During the winter, especially when lakes are frozen, a dozen or so eagles can be found on the three rivers in Allegheny County alone, according to Shema.

“When the winter range and expanding population are coupled, it makes sense that our rivers would become the next step for nest locations,” he said.

“These birds are using the rivers during winter, and some have apparently recognized the potential here,” said Shema said.

Bonner added: “They come for a visit, they like it here and they stay.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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