Eagle fever soars in Alle-Kiski Valley

Mary Ann Thomas
| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 11:23 a.m.

Small crowds are amassing along Freeport Road in Harmar to watch two bald eagles soaring above Route 28 as they carry branches to a nest and fend off red-tailed hawks.

After a decades-long absence, the Harmar eagles are one of three pairs that are nesting along one of the three rivers in Allegheny County.

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania guided about 200 eager eagle watchers to a roadside viewing area along Freeport Road in Harmar during the weekend.

Harmar police received a couple of calls about the crowds, but there have been no traffic problems so far, according to Harmar police Chief Jason Domaratz.

Jan Bonder, who saw her first bald eagle in Alaska 15 years ago, stopped to watch the Harmar birds on Monday.

“It was exciting to be down there and sharing that joy with everyone,” said Bonder, who owns The Songbird Sanctuary, a backyard bird-feeding and nature store in Blawnox.

Bonder sallied up with her camera with a telephoto lens to view and photograph the birds as they continued to build their nest along a wooded ridge above Route 28 and tangle with a red-tailed hawk. According to local wildlife experts, the nest was built and used by red-tailed hawks last year, and the eagles have taken it over and enlarged it.

“We got to see a red-tailed hawk approach the nest and cause a bit of a fuss,” Bonder said. “The eagle that was in the nest maintained its position, and the hawk eventually flew off.”

It's these kinds of scenes, and the promise of a view of one of the eagles flying overhead to fish in the Allegheny River that draw long-time birders and first-time eagle watchers alike.

“If you're like me and grew up in Allegheny County, I would never have dreamed that eagles would be so close to home,” said Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission Southwest Region near Ligonier.

“People are thrilled,” said Jim Bonner, a Tarentum resident and executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Bonner set up two scopes and brought eight pair of binoculars to an empty parking lot off Freeport Road last weekend and offered up views of the birds to the public.

“There is almost a sense of ownership and pride,” he said. “It just makes people feel good that the eagles are here, that they are in our backyard.”

This eagle fever is not lost on the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Audubon Society. Both organizations are looking into erecting signs providing more information about the birds.

“We're trying to make people aware and be sensitive to the eagles' needs,” said Bonner. “We want people to be respectful and try not to intrude on them.”

Also, Bonner and game officials stress that the successful nesting of the birds – that is rearing young birds – rarely happens during the first year that an eagle pair builds a nest.

“And this is their first year,” Bonner said.

Audubon and game officials believe that one of the birds, which still has some brown mottling on its white plumage, is between 3 and 4 years old while the mate is at least 5 years old.

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

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