RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Over the last few decades, the bald eagle has made a fantastic comeback. The federal government is on the verge of taking it off the endangered species list, but biologists are worried that the robust numbers they see today could be fleeting.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren went flying with the biologists and a few hundred eagles to find out why.

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ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Brian Watts takes to the sky in a tiny four-seater airplane. He's a biologist at the College of William and Mary, who's been doing this for 20 years. He says it's the best way to see just how far the bald eagle has come.

Mr. BRIAN WATTS (Biologist, College of William and Mary): We're just flying at about 200 to 300 feet right along the shoreline here to map all the birds that are perched along the shoreline.

SHOGREN: We're south of Washington, D.C., over the Potomac River. It's a clear, cold day. The river is covered with lots of ice. We're close to the Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac is wide there, four miles across in some places. This is some of the most important habitat for bald eagles in the country, and they are everywhere.

Mr. WATTS: …bird up here along the shoreline flying, and there's a pair of adults there. Do see them flying inland? Three here, two adults and young one there. Three young ones over there.

SHOGREN: Watt says, 30 years ago, only 60 pairs of bald eagles nested in this region. Now, nearly 1,000 do. And on top of that, thousands of other eagles come here. Birds fly here from Florida in the summer. And in the winter, birds from Canada and New England fly south. It's warmer and there is lots of food, namely plump, juicy ducks.

Mr. WATTS: Look at that. Can you see that flock of ducks over there, how dense they are? That's just perfect for these eagles.

SHOGREN: There's a big spot of blood on the ice, right?

Mr. WATTS: Yeah. It looked like he had just finished eating a duck there. Not much left of the carcass, but you can see a lot of blood on the ice.

SHOGREN: More eagles perched in the trees on shore, adults with chocolate wings and bright white heads and tails. They sit on nests, incubating eggs.

Mr. WATTS: You can see the incredible density of breeding up here on there rural areas where, you know, close to these large creeks, just incredible breeding density. Here's another nest, here. Those two nests probably aren't, you know, a quarter of mile from each other.

SHOGREN: Unfortunately for the eagles, they aren't the only ones who want to build their homes along this waterfront. Brian Watts says the eagles are returning to roost, just as people are flooding in.

Mr. WATTS: Here it's just point after point being consumed by the development here. It's just like a wave that's running right down the Potomac. And the land values are just going out of sight. Look at all of the open patches here that have just been cleared in the last year for new developments; just thousand of units are going to go in.

SHOGREN: And Watts says, when people move in, eagles move out.

Mr. WATTS: This development here has a number of vacant lots at the end of a cul-de-sac. It's because there's a nest that's really close to the cul-de-sac. And so, the developer was restricted from building, you know, really close to the nest. But, that nest is now been abandoned for two years since that development went in.

SHOGREN: On the way back to the airstrip, Watts says 80 percent of the eagles in this region nest on private property. So, decisions there will determine the fate of the bird.

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Mr. WATTS: There's a thin ribbon of land that both populations are really vying for. Everybody wants to live along the waterfront. That's true of us. It's also true of the eagles.

SHOGREN: Watts worries that the pace of construction will pick up. If as expected, the eagle loses the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Another law will takeover. But Watts says it won't do as much to protect nests and may not protect feeding areas at all.

Mr. WATTS: There's no question that without safeguards of habitat, we will see a reversal in the Chesapeake Bay population, not maybe in the next decade, but certainly in the next three or four decades.

SHOGREN: And he says since eagle from the whole Atlantic Coast use this area, fewer eagles in the Chesapeake Bay will mean fewer eagles from Canada to Florida.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Later today, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Elizabeth Shogren reports that the future of the bald eagle may rest with private landowners like Terrell Bauers(ph).

Mr. TERRELL BAUERS: I don't recent the eagles, because it's not the eagles, it's the people.

MONTAGNE: You can track the soaring bald eagle population and trace their nesting patterns around the Chesapeake Bay at npr.org.

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