Eagle Population Up, But Prime Habitat Threatened

The first of a two-part series.

Graph showing the increase in the bald eagle population from 1963-2000. i i

hide captionBald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States because of a ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Graph showing the increase in the bald eagle population from 1963-2000.

Bald eagles have made a resurgence in the United States because of a ban on DDT and protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. Despite the bird's booming populations, biologists are concerned that prime eagle habitat is rapidly being taken over by development.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Hear Part 2 of This Report:

Map of nesting sites on Chesapeake Bay

hide captionThe Chesapeake Bay region is home to almost 1,000 pairs of bald eagles — up from 60 pairs 30 years ago.

Click on the map to see eagle nesting patterns.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR/Source: Bryan D. Watts, Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary.
Eagle flies from nest with eggs near Chesapeake Bay i i

hide captionAn eagle flies from its nesting site on the Potomac River. Thousands of eagles migrate to the Chesapeake Bay each year from Florida, New England, and Canada.

Bryan Watts
Eagle flies from nest with eggs near Chesapeake Bay

An eagle flies from its nesting site on the Potomac River. Thousands of eagles migrate to the Chesapeake Bay each year from Florida, New England, and Canada.

Bryan Watts
Eagle biologist Bryan Watts boards the small plane he uses to survey bald eagle populations. i i

hide captionBiologist Bryan Watts has been tracking eagles on the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. From a small plane, he scouts the trees below for nesting sites.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Eagle biologist Bryan Watts boards the small plane he uses to survey bald eagle populations.

Biologist Bryan Watts has been tracking eagles on the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. From a small plane, he scouts the trees below for nesting sites.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River that biologists worry will displace eagles. i i

hide captionBiologists are worried that new developments along the Potomac River will displace the eagles that have nested along the banks. Eighty percent of the eagles in the region nest on private property.

Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River that biologists worry will displace eagles.

Biologists are worried that new developments along the Potomac River will displace the eagles that have nested along the banks. Eighty percent of the eagles in the region nest on private property.

Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River scientists worry will displace eagles. i i

hide captionA new development built in prime nesting habitat along the Potomac River.

Bryan Watts
One of the many new developments along the Potomac River scientists worry will displace eagles.

A new development built in prime nesting habitat along the Potomac River.

Bryan Watts

As the federal government gears up to take the bald eagle off the endangered species list, biologists worry that the fast pace of waterfront development in key eagle habitat could make the majestic bird's robust numbers fleeting.

Just as the eagle is returning to its riparian roosts, people are snapping up waterfront properties at record numbers, experts say.

"There's a thin ribbon of land that both populations are really vying for," says Bryan Watts, a biologist at the College of William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology. "Everybody wants to live along the waterfront. That's true of us — that's also true of eagles."

To get a close-up view of the problem, Watts takes to the skies on an aerial tour of eagle habitat. In a four-seater Cessna, Watts hugs the shorelines of the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C., at a low altitude of 200 to 300 feet.

Near the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac is wide — four miles across in some places. Watts says this is some of the most important habitat for bald eagles in the country. The eagles that live here represent a large portion of the 7,000 eagle pairs that currently breed in the lower 48 states.

Eagles are everywhere along the rural and sparsely populated stretches of the river and its tributaries. In addition to a vibrant population of resident birds that breed here annually, thousands of other eagles use the area as an essential feeding ground.

Birds from Florida fly up in the summer and birds from Canada and New England fly south in the winter. The Chesapeake Bay region provides a comfortable climate and plenty of food. Below, Watts spots a solitary eagle standing on the frozen river, finishing a meal of duck.

For 20 years, Watts has been flying over this area, studying the return of the eagle to the Chesapeake Bay. The number of nesting pairs has soared to nearly 1,000, from a low of 60.

During his flights, Watts sees hundreds of eagles. Many adults — with chocolate wings and bright white heads and tails — sit on nests, incubating eggs. Eagles are territorial when they're brooding, but some of the nests are as close as only a quarter-mile apart. Watts points out the very high breeding density in rural areas close to large creeks.

Unfortunately for the eagles, they aren't the only ones who want to build their homes along this waterfront.

"It's just point after point being consumed by development here," Watts says. "It's just like a wave that's running right down the Potomac. And the land values are just going out of sight here. Look at all of the open patches here that have just been cleared in the last year for new development... thousands of units that are going to go in shortly here."

Watts says that when people move in, eagles move out. Only 4 percent of the eagles in Virginia nest close to developed areas.

Below, a new development high on a bluff overlooks the Potomac. Watts says eagles used to nest here. He points out a few vacant lots at the end of a cul-de-sac. Watts says the developer was restricted from building on these lots because they were close to an eagle nest.

The nest has been abandoned for two years since the development went in, Watts says, and the developer now will be able to build houses on those lots.

Watts worries that the pace of construction will pick up if the eagle loses the protection of the Endangered Species Act, as expected. Another law, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, would take over but there is concern that it won't do as much to protect nests and may not protect feeding areas at all.

Decisions about whether to develop private land will be crucial to the eagle's future because very little of the eagle's habitat is protected within wildlife refuges or parks. Watts says about 80 percent of the eagles in the Chesapeake Bay region nest on private property.

Without the safeguards of habitat, Watts predicts that the Chesapeake Bay eagle population will decline in the next three or four decades.

Changes in the Chesapeake Bay habitat will not just affect local eagles, Watts warns. Because eagles from the whole Atlantic Coast use this area, fewer eagles in the Chesapeake Bay will mean fewer eagles from Canada to Florida.

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