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Photographer Joni Denker of Janesville, a Beloit College student, has been out several times this winter to see the eagles, and she says the increased activity is obvious.
(Seen Denker's photos at Facebook.com/JoniDPhotography )
"It’s the most eagles I’ve seen. I saw about six at one time in Janesville, and on another occasion I saw five together. I’ve heard of other people seeing more in Beloit, but it’s just being in the right place at the right time," Denker said. "I’ve only been birding now for about two years, but there are definitely more eagles this winter than there was last winter."
Denker also spends time volunteering with the Green-Rock Audubon Society and the planning committee for Janesville’s Birdfest.
Eagles making a comeback
Long stretches of frigid temperatures certainly have helped drive eagles farther south in search of open water for fishing, but the bigger reason is the general strengthening of the eagle population.
"Part of it is just the fact that there are more eagles now. Some of them are even here year-round now, and it hasn’t really been like that for 200 years," said Rock County DNR wildlife technician Brian Buenzow. "The efforts of getting DDT and the other eggshell thinning pesticides out of the environment have allowed the eagle population to rebound."
In the early 1900s, the nation boasted a healthy eagle presence, but by 1950 those numbers dropped dramatically, so much so that eagles teetered on the brink of extinction. Bald eagles were added to the endangered species list in 1967 and the prognosis seemed grim. Relief came in the form of a 1972 national ban on DDT, a compound used in pesticides, and subsequent cleanup efforts.
"The bans and cleanup efforts have really helped," said Walworth County’s DNR wildlife technician, Seth Fisher. "Productivity of eagles has really increased. Getting DDT out of their food source was the key to helping them come back. There is actually a good chance that we will be reaching capacity in some spots up north so it’s likely that even more will start moving down to our area."
Fisher also is the DNR’s regional eagle representative and he keeps close watch on established eagle nesting territories in 10 counties, including Rock and Walworth.
"As far as Walworth County sightings go, we haven’t gotten a lot of reports. I know I saw one this winter out on Lake Geneva," Fisher said. "Along the Rock River is going to be a really good spot to see them. If they can find food they are going to stay there and that has a lot to do with sources of open water."
Fisher does flybys in the spring to perform an occupied survey and then a bit later on, a productivity survey. This helps the DNR establish nesting territories and their success in raising offspring that the eagles are having. Across the counties he surveys, including Rock and Walworth, there are currently 16 occupied territories, and he’s happy to say that the number is up three from the previous year.
"It’s not a crazy increase by any means, but they are steadily growing," said Fisher.
Of all the predatory birds, eagles do make some of the easiest-to-find nests. In fact they build the largest nests of any North American bird and the largest tree nests ever recorded for any animal species, they can get as big as 13 feet deep, 8 feet wide and well over 1,500 pounds. However, Fisher still benefits from people reporting their sightings.
"We do rely a lot on citizen input. I don’t have a lot of ground time to spend just looking around, so if someone comes forward that has seen a nest or a handful of eagles, it sort of gives me an idea of where to look," said Fisher.
Watching from a distance
Eagles officially were de-listed as an endangered species on June 28, 2007, and since then, the population has been rising steadily. According to Buenzow, now that they are back they seem hardier than ever.
"They are proving to be a lot more resilient than we once thought," Buenzow said. "When they were endangered there was real concern that they wouldn’t be able to reproduce enough to maintain their populations. There were a lot of restrictions around the nesting trees, you couldn’t get close to them to even observe them. But now we’ve got eagles nesting on Lake Koshkonong and the Rock River where boats are going by all day long and it doesn’t seem to bother them. There is enough food for them and ample solitude here to set up a nest and raise young, so they aren’t as particular as we thought."
With that said, of course, Buenzow agrees that there is no reason to harass the eagles while enjoying their beauty or photographing them. Denker was disappointed to hear a story from a fellow photographer about residents trying to scare an eagle out of a tree so they could get a flying photo.
"It just kind of struck a nerve for me because I feel like it crosses over a bit of a birding ethical line," Denker said. "Just try to keep an eye on the bird’s behavior. I’ve seen where people accidentally flush the bird out of the tree because they didn’t see it while they were walking. If you are watching the bird and getting closer and closer to take a picture and you see that the bird is turning and looking at you and kind of getting into a posture to take off, you are too close."
Right now is as good a time as any to get out and see our nation’s mascot patrolling the Rock, and it’s worth taking a second to appreciate how an orchestrated effort on the part of concerned people help put the eagles back on the map. In the same breath, don’t forget what put them in danger in the first place, and enjoy the beautiful birds from a respectful distance.