Nature, North Carolina

North Carolina bald eagles: a comeback success story

Photo by Beth Waldron, taken at Haw River, Bynum, NC 2017
Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

I recently went to the Haw River near Bynum, North Carolina to try out a new lens and unexpectedly encountered two bald eagles. Unexpected because not a single pair of bald eagles were nesting in North Carolina in 1983 when State biologists first released juveniles into the wild as part of a recovery effort. Now there is a thriving eagle population with an estimated 300 eagle territories statewide and 125 nesting pairs. The Haw River feeds into Jordan Lake, where around 20 eagle pairs nest and many more visit.

Decline and recovery

We know bald eagles were part of the historic environment in North Carolina because they were mentioned in a 1709 publication (A New Voyage to Carolina) by explorer John Lawson.  The Cherokee Indians also have stories passed down about golden and bald eagles.  So we know eagles were in the state, but why did they disappear?  The NC Wildlife Resources Commission cites several reasons for the eagle population’s decline:

  • Deforestation
  • Hunting
  • Poor water quality
  • Agricultural pesticides
Bald eagle catching a fish at Jordan Lake. Beth Waldron 2017

The most dramatic of these threats came in the 1960’s & 70’s when fish and other animals were exposed to pesticides such as DDT and PCBs which washed into streams and lakes. When the bald eagles ate fish and prey animals containing the chemicals, they too ingested the toxic substances.  Female eagles laid eggs with much softer shells which crushed under the weight of the nesting mother. In 1972, Congress passed a series of bills banning these chemicals and creating protections for eagles and other raptors.

The NC Bald Eagle Project was launched in 1982 to re-establish an eagle population in the state.  At first, eagles were raised in captivity and released into the wild around Lake Mattamuskeet in eastern NC. Many of young eagles died due to avian malaria carried by the local mosquitoes (which the young eagles had no natural immunity to).  Attempts at further reintroduction ended but in 1984, the first post-DDT wild bald eagle nest was documented just 7 miles from the lake.

State activities evolved to include the identification and monitoring of new nests and providing technical assistance to landowners and timber companies on how to help identified eagle populations by protecting nesting sites.

In 1990, wildlife habitat management practices were implemented at man-made reservoirs Jordan Lake and Falls Lake in central NC to provide roosting and nesting habitats for bald eagles.  Now there is a thriving eagle population at the lakes with around 20 nesting pairs at Jordan Lake in the area where the photographs posted here were taken.  Statewide there is an estimated 300 eagle territories  and 125 nesting pairs.  Isn’t this is a lovely chart showing how humans can have impact when we change practices to help save species decimated by our own actions?

Source: NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Bald Eagle Fact Sheet 2005

Track an eagle!


Today’s technology allows for even more advanced study and management of the NC eagle population.  NC State University professors Ted Simmons and Roland Kays lead a project using state-of-the-art GPS transmitters to study bald eagle movements in North Carolina.  In January 2015, an immature bald eagle who had been successfully treated by rehabilitation experts for an injury was able to be released back into the wild with a solar-powered GPS transmitter affixed.   Since her release, the eagle, named Yangchen, has made extensive use of reclaimed phosphate pits and catfish ponds near the Albermarle Sound. Recent maps of the bird’s movements are available to the public online and updated four times a day by the Movebank animal tracker site. The scientists are hoping to track the immature bird to follow migratory movements, pair formation, and nesting behavior over the next several years.

The bald eagle population has made a remarkable comeback in North Carolina.  It will take continued effort to ensure we never again are without them.

Haw River, Beth Waldron, 2017

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