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Bald eagle numbers on the rise in Western Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, 1:42 p.m.
Courtesy Steve Gosser
An immature bald eagle tries to snatch a fish from Crooked Creek Lake in Armstrong County.
Courtesy Annettee Devinney
The Hays eaglet.
Courtesy Annette Devinney
The Hays bald eagles greet each other.
Courtesy Thomas Moeller
One of the Hays bald eagles returned to its nest with a fish for its eaglet in July 2013.
Courtesy Gerry Devinney
The male Hays bald eagle in the moonlight.
The female Hays bald eagle visits with its eaglet.
Courtesy of Brian Shema, Audubon Society
Bald eagles perch in a tree above Route 28 in Harmar in March 2013.
Courtesy Brian Shema, Audubon Society
Photo by Brian Shema, Audubon Society A pair of bald eagles have been building a nest on a ridge above Route 28 in Harmar. Wildlife officials don’t know if the birds will lay eggs just yet but say that the pair will likely return to the Harmar area again. Photos were taken Saturday.

“Are they still there? Do you see them?”

These are the constant questions from walkers and cyclists on the Allegheny Three Rivers Heritage Trail in the Hays section of Pittsburgh where bald eagles nested on a nearby hillside for the first time in more than two centuries.

Across Allegheny County in Harmar, eagle watchers there are still stopping by an unproductive nest above Route 28 to check in on those birds, with high expectations for next year's mating season.

More eagles expected

Expect eagle sightings to become more common as the number of bald eagles nests are projected to rise along Pittsburgh's three rivers and nearby counties in years to come.

Do the math and, on the conservative side, with eagle pairs nesting within five river miles of each other, there's room for eight nests just along Allegheny County's portion of the three rivers.

But the region is far from its potential as just three pairs of eagles, one along each of Pittsburgh's three rivers, attempted nesting this year. Still, that is the most eagle activity the region has seen in decades.

Look at a map of the nesting sites of bald eagles in the state and the biggest concentration of the birds is along the Susquehanna River and in other eastern portions of Pennsylvania.

The density of eagles nesting along the Susquehanna River continues to increase as a pair built a nest this year between two other nesting eagle pairs that were just four miles apart, according to Patricia Barber, the endangered bird biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“Southwest Pennsylvania is probably the biggest hole,” she said.

That is because, when the state Game Commission reintroduced the eagle 30 years ago, birds were released in the center and northeastern portions of the state, where the bird was most common before suffering from the widespread use of the pesticide DDT.

In the early 1980s, the only remnant population in the state was one or two nesting pairs in Crawford County.

“The birds spread out from those three places and that is part of the reason why the southwest corner lagged a bit,” Barber said. “They were just introduced further away.”

Frequent visitors

Still, the offspring from successful nests throughout the commonwealth and in nearby states have been coming to the Pittsburgh area for years, according to the Game Commission and local birders.

And, apparently, they like it here.

There is a population of immature bald eagles that have been roaming the area.

“The chicks are the future population of eagles,” said Barber. “There is a robustness to their population. Once they are a year old — and about half of them die before they reach one year — they can live up to 30 years.

A bald eagle starts out in life with chocolate coloring, then morphs into a mottled brown and white until it reaches 5 years of age, when it acquires its dapper and signature ivory head and tail feathers.

Throughout their adolescence, these young eagles have been sampling the fish in local rivers and seriously scouting for nest locations.

“The number of calls from people seeing the bald eagle have been increasing, and you knew it was just a matter of time before there was a nest in the city,” said Beth Fife, a conservation officer in Pittsburgh for the Game Commission.

As many as a dozen bald eagles winter along the rivers in Allegheny County, according to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

The abundance of fish that comes with cleaner rivers has proven to be very attractive to the birds.

“So much work has gone into water quality there and that provides a lot of available habit for these eagles,” Barber said.

Robert Mulvihill, one of the editors of the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania and an ornithologist with the National Aviary, said: “Being an apex predator, their presence represents the health of a whole ecosystem.

“We know how important the three rivers were to industrialization. That past is part of our history just as the rivers now are important for the renaissance of Pittsburgh. We should be proud of the path the city has taken to bring us to a point where bald eagles are nesting here.”

The eaglerazzi

The birth of the first bald eagle in the city of Pittsburgh in over 200 years isn't the only anomaly here: Nature watchers, who typically leave the region for more a pristine environment, also are becoming downright urban in their travels as well.

“We were cheering this morning like we were at an athletic event,” said Roy Bires of Swissvale, who has been watching the Hays birds for four months.

Bires and some other residents on Tuesday watched the Hays eaglet scream for food from his parents, which flew away from him with prey, forcing the young bird to fly about a third of a mile to retrieve his meal.

The eagle family is expected to leave the area soon, fishing local waterways as they travel. The parent birds are likely to return to Hayes to nest again next year.

“Summer is half over. What are we going to do when the eagle is gone?” asked Annette Devinney, 54, of Penn Hills.

She and her husband, Gerry, have been photographing the eagle family, offering up close-up views of the birds with their camera and long lens.

“I've made new friends doing this,” she said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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