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Flight Lines: Nation’s symbol has rebounded well from mid-century low

Bald eagles have become a common sight in Cass County the past several years, particularly in late March and early April during spring migration. Keith Corliss1 / 2
A pair of adult bald eagles tend to a nest just north of Fargo in late March. Keith Corliss2 / 2

There was quite a buzz on the local online bird chat a few weeks ago as a certain raptor made its presence known with gusto in our area.

Indeed, this is the time of year when many soaring hawks migrate north for the summer nesting season. Perhaps none is more recognizable than the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

Being early seasonal nesters, many adult birds are already on territory, exhibiting courtship behaviors and tending to the business of raising yet another brood of young for the year. With no leaves yet on our trees, the eagles are very easily observed. I know of no less than five active nests in Cass County alone; there are likely others that I am not aware of.

Bald eagles have become quite common locally in the past few years; so much so that during virtually any season one can reasonably expect to encounter one. I even spot them soaring high over my house in West Fargo with some regularity.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. A little over 30 years ago, I had to make a drive to Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in order to see my first bald eagle.

By the late 1900s, this large elegant raptor had become quite scarce. Trapping, shooting and poisoning had led to precipitous declines in populations; this despite the fact it was named our national emblem in 1782. By the middle of the 20th century the bird was absent from much of the lower 48 states and rare elsewhere. In 1978, the bald eagle gained protection under the Endangered Species Act and became a definitive symbol for the law.

To describe the comeback of this bird in the ensuing years as a success would be an understatement. Biologists estimate the continent’s population (it is found only in North America) now at over a quarter million. In 2007, it was officially removed from the Endangered Species list.

To illustrate just how dramatic the return of bald eagles has been even on a local level, on March 26, 2011, fellow West Fargo birder Dean Riemer and I drove out to look at migrant birds in Cass County late in the morning. After encountering an impressive number of eagles we switched tactics and decided to spend the day counting them. The 126 bald eagles we tallied remains the daily record for the state of North Dakota.

Most readers likely know it takes four to five years before bald eagles achieve their iconic white head and tail, indicating adulthood. In the preceding immature years, chocolate brown feathering mixed with a mottling of white often confuses observers and leads to erroneous reports of golden eagles, equally large but rarer birds locally.

Bald eagles dwarf all other raptors in size (golden eagles excepting) in nearly its entire continental range. In addition, the dark feathering of the birds appears nearly black to me, making it easily discernable even at great distances.

Equally conclusive is the size and shape of the birds’ nests, which are huge, stick-built, vase-shaped structures used year after year. Every spring more limbs are added by mated pairs as part of courtship, making for potentially gigantic nests. For 34, years a famous tree in Vermilion, Ohio, hosted a pair of nesting eagles until it blew down. The nest weighed nearly two metric tons.

I find the statement on Cornell University’s All About Birds website regarding nesting habitat to be quite curious. It reads, “Bald eagles typically nest in forested areas adjacent to large bodies of water.” It’s quite possible this thinking reflects a recent past when the birds were much scarcer. Instead, populations of bald eagles have gotten so healthy as to push birds into habitats once thought marginal. The Cass County nests are all on rural agricultural land with “large bodies of water” nowhere nearby.

Where the bald eagle population will be a generation from now is anyone’s. If recent trends continue, however, our grandchildren won’t need to travel a distance to see one as I once did. It’s very likely they will be able to look up from mowing the backyard, spot a large, impressive, white-headed bird soaring lazily overhead and say, “Cool, another bald eagle.”

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.