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State biologists take to the skies again this month to count how many young bald eagles hatched this spring, buoyed by April aerial survey results suggesting a record number of occupied nests in a record number of counties.
“We’re really close to having eagles nesting in all Wisconsin counties,” says Jim Woodford, the Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist coordinating the survey this year. “We’re well beyond what we would have thought possible in the state.”
Earlier this spring, an eagle nest was documented for the first time in Racine County, a homeowner has reported one near the Racine-Kenosha county line, and reports are coming in of adult eagles in Walworth County.
Last year, new breeding territories were documented throughout the state and, in particular, in northwest and north central Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River in southern Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Bald Eagle and Osprey Surveys 2012.
Preliminary results from the April aerial surveys suggest that the number of breeding pairs will climb past the record set in 2012 of 1,337 breeding pairs, Woodford says. That 2012 total was up 50 pairs from 2011, and is a far cry from the 108 breeding pairs documented in 1973, when the first survey was done, Woodford says.
“What we’re seeing is that eagles are much more tolerant than they were,” he says. “Their ability to acclimate to humans and our activities has increased.”
That increased tolerance and milder winter temperatures means more eagles are living in Wisconsin year-round. “If there is open water year-round, the eagles will stay here,” he says. The cold spring doesn’t appear to have affected nesting.
The bald eagle has enjoyed a remarkable recovery in Wisconsin and nationwide since being placed on the state and federal endangered species lists in the 1970s. Wisconsin played an important role in that recovery, a story told in a special 2012 web feature on bald eagle recovery.
Eagles were removed from Wisconsin’s endangered list in 1997 and from the federal list in 2007, although the bird and their nests remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. That law prohibits the killing, possession, sale or import of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit.
Wisconsin’s aerial surveys, which started in March and run through June, are part of the nation’s longest running statewide bald eagle survey. This year is the 41st the survey has been conducted, and they’ve been a foundation of Wisconsin’s successful program to restore bald eagles to the sky, Woodford says.
Wisconsin’s eagle recovery efforts took flight in the 1960s when volunteer Chuck Sindelar of Waukesha started spending summers riding shotgun in a small plane, peering into eagle nests. Sindelar paid for the contract pilot out of his own pocketbook so he could check out the reports of eagle activity reported by citizens. In later years, Dave Evans, a Duluth volunteer, and Ron Eckstein, a DNR biologist, would follow Sindelar’s aerial surveys by climbing the trees where Sindelar found active nests. Together, the three banded more than 3,000 eaglets, yielding information to help better understand Wisconsin eagles and how to manage their habitat.
DNR named Sindelar a “Comeback Champ” in 2012 for his help in eagle restoration.
DNR pilots now fly the surveys, which are typically done twice a year with state endangered resources and wildlife management staff doing the counting. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff survey nests by watercraft within the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife & Fish Refuge.
DNR staff use the information from the aerial surveys to help protect and manage eagle nesting territories. Throughout the state, DNR staff are contacted by public property managers and private landowners and make recommendations to protect eagle nests from disturbance. On public and private properties, all nests are fully protected and habitat is managed to promote tall snags and large, super canopy white pines.
The surveys also allow other important research to occur. For instance, DNR research scientist Mike Meyer is in the third year of a study to collect blood samples from eagles to determine the levels of environmental contaminants. A photo gallery showing Meyer and others working with eaglets can be found on DNR’s Flickr account.
“Nest protection and management continue to be important in the longterm conservation of our bald eagle population,” Woodford says. “The surveys are a critical part of that because we need the best information possible to make those recommendations.”
Donations can be made to the Adopt an Eagle nest fund to help support the aerial surveys, rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured or orphaned eagles, and work with landowners to protect and manage nest trees and winter roost sites. Go to dnr.wi.gov and search for “Adopt an Eagle.”