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Bird's-eye view: Bald eagles coming to Allegheny County

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, June 29, 2008

When Jim Valimont started birding during the 1970s, there were only three nesting pairs of bald eagles in the state, and they were only found in the Geneva Marsh and Pymatuning State Park areas in Crawford County.

"The birds weren't reproducing yet, because they still had thin eggshells from DDT, and their eggs would crack and fail," Valimont said.

"Now, you can't go up to the Pymatuning area and see less than 15 of those birds if you look for them," said Valimont, a resident of Harmar, Allegheny County.

Valimont is a longtime hike leader and regional compiler of the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count.

This formerly endangered raptor is a common sight in the Pymatuning area and can be found cruising around many bodies of water in the region.

As people flock to local parks this summer, they will have a decent chance of spotting a bald eagle if they know where to go and what to look for.

These birds, which can weigh as much as 14 pounds and fly with 7-feet wingspans, are considerably larger than predatory birds such as the red-tailed hawk, which frequents utility poles and lines along major roadways.

"(The bald eagle) is just a gigantic bird. You can't mistake it with much else," Valimont said. "Perhaps a great blue heron. The eagle, which holds its wings flat as it flies, is much bigger than the turkey vulture, which holds its wings in a 'V.'"

Bald eagles are more impressive in nature than in photographs. The mature females, which are larger, and males are instantly identifiable by the snow-white head, black body and white tail.

The beak, besides radiating canary yellow, is enormous. Save for a large woodpecker or wading bird such as a heron, no other local bird has so much beak.

The juvenile eagles sport shades of brown plumage speckled with white but have the telltale beak and enormous size. According to Valimont, there are as many as three times the number of young than adults.

Indeed, it takes five years for the young to acquire that dapper adult plumage.

Spotting eagles in the region

Experts agree that the best places to see bald eagles locally are Pymatuning State Park, Geneva Marsh and Moraine State Park in Butler. Binoculars are necessary for a good view.

"We've looked at the data, and eagles are expanding

from core areas like Pymatuning," said Dan Brauning, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission and co-author of "The Birds of Pennsylvania." "They nest, and the young come back to the vicinity where they were raised, and that population grows like rings coming out of that core."

Every generation of bald eagles from Pymatuning has expanded to places such as Moraine State Park, southern Butler County and along the Allegheny River.

Throughout the state, the three primary sites of eagle concentrations have been in the Pymatuning area, along the lower Susquehanna River in south-central Pennsylvania and along the Delaware River on the eastern edge of the state.

According to Valimont, seeing a bald eagle was a rarity in places other than Geneva or Pymatuning.

"Then, 10 or 15 years ago, you go up there and see 15. They were just everywhere, and since then, they've started spreading across the state."

Just because an area doesn't have a confirmed nesting

doesn't mean that eagles don't pass through and spend time there, especially lakes and rivers.

"You can find eagles now at most bodies of water, including Lake Wilhelm at Maurice Goddard Park in Mercer," Valimont said.

According to Valimont, the most likely place for a sighting is Geneva Marsh in the town of Custards, which is off of Route 79 in Crawford County along state road 2003.

"Stand there, and if you have the patience, you'll see an eagle in 15 minutes. Look out over the marsh; look at snags in the water and treetops," he said.

Bald eagles continue their surge in the region with a second nest found this year in the Moraine State Park area in Butler County, according to Doug Gross, endangered bird specialist with the state Game Commission. The birds nest in more than 40 counties in the commonwealth with 132 nesting pairs documented last year and at least 20 new nest sites confirmed this year.

"They are expanding in areas where they've never been before, like reservoirs and man-made areas such as dams," Gross said.

Moraine State Park's southern shore day-use area is a popular place to spot the national bird, according to Paul Hess of Natrona Heights. Hess is a longtime hike leader and editor for the Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Hess advises birdwatchers scouting the shores of Lake Arthur at the day-use area to look west.

"In the winter, when Lake Arthur freezes, the eagles stand on the ice there and catch coots in the water."

A successful recovery

The bald eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list last year and is considered one of most successful examples of a species comeback after years of

reintroduction efforts.

Eagle populations dropped to about 417 pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963, with just several pairs in Pennsylvania that failed to produce young, Brauning said.

"Times were bleak for the bald eagle back in the 1960s and '70s," he said.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission launched reintroduction efforts for the bird during the 1980s, capturing, raising and releasing 88 eaglets from Saskatchewan. According to the agency, more than 500 eaglets have taken flight from Pennsylvanian nests since.

According to Brauning, more than 130 nests have been documented in the state, with population numbers increasing by 14 percent per year.

"The eagle is a dramatic symbol for the country; it symbolizes our freedom and also symbolizes environmental successes we've had through protection," he said.

"The average person fishing or boating on the Allegheny and Ohio River, they have a much better chance of seeing an eagle (compared with) when I grew up. They're so much more accessible, and you don't just have to see them in a book or on television."

Although historical records point to scant nesting by bald eagles in Western Pennsylvania, the birds are on the move and are expected to nest in Allegheny County in the near future. Brauning expects the birds to nest in the county within the next decade.

"They're not as easily disturbed as we once thought, but they are still sensitive. They nest in Philadelphia County, and they will, at some point, nest in Allegheny County like the peregrine falcon."

Valimont anticipates a nesting much sooner. And, according to Hess, a pair of eagles already have taken up residence just north of Freeport along the Allegheny River in Armstrong County.

"I fully expect to see them on the Allegheny River in Allegheny County soon," Valimont said. "You've got steep ridges that people can't build on across from Harmar. You might see them around the Penn Hills area -- they're there in the winter at the Highland Park dam. You can see them flying just about anywhere along the Allegheny."

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