As I drove my scooter over the door sill and went out onto the patio recently to enjoy the cool evening breezes, I glanced to my right and saw one of Mother Natures magnificent creatures. It was perched on a naked limb in the top of a dead Sycamore on the edge of the canal that drifted lazily past my patio. The sight of this American Bald Eagle with his white head shining in the evening sun transported me back to a recent two-year project that I participated in before my problem put me in the Scooter.
As the setting sun slipped below the horizon, bringing its life-giving light to the other side of the world, I sat and waited for the return of the Bald Eagles. They came alone and sometimes two by two from their fishing grounds along the shore of the rivers and marshes that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
They had spent the day watching, waiting and swooping down from their lofty circles in the sky. Not every attempt to snag a fish with their long, sharp talons is rewarded with a catch, but when contact is made, their unique fishing gear locks onto their catch and their grip is released only when they land on a perch. There they kill the fish and strip the flesh from the bones with their razor-sharp beak.
Seventy odd years ago, when I was just a lad growing up in the “wilds” around Kingsville, Bald Eagles in the mid-Atlantic area were a rare phenomenon. They were an endangered species back then and sinking fast. With the introduction of pesticides like DDT, another nail was driven into their coffin.
After WWII, some in our country turned from a world at war to a world of concern for species other than our own. Since the Bald Eagle is our National Symbol, the government, urged by the many conservation groups that were becoming more active during that time, was able to pass a law, banning DDT in the United States.
It was documented by science that DDT caused the eggshells of Eagles, Osprey and other fish-eating birds to be too thin to support the weight of the nesting birds and the eggs broke before they could hatch. That one move, along with a complete ban on killing eagles for any reason, or even possessing an Eagle feather, brought them back to a point where they are no longer endangered. They are still a protected species but thanks to careful and thoughtful management, areas like the Chesapeake Bay Region and other large bodies of water including Loch Raven and even Prettyboy reservoir are haven to Eagles and Osprey.
There are still more Bald Eagles in Alaska than any other place in the world. There they are nearly as plentiful as sparrows enjoy almost unlimited fishing areas and have the wilderness they need to survive.
Since their diet consists primarily of fish, they tend to gather in numbers anywhere in North America and parts of Mexico where there are large bodies of water. Our Chesapeake Bay has hundreds of tributaries with forest along their banks that provide roosting and nesting spots that Bald Eagles need to prosper. One of their favorite areas along the Upper Chesapeake is the Army Testing Center known by most of us as Aberdeen Proving Ground.
For many years now, hundreds of Eagles have called it home. In spite of all the noise from exploding shells being tested, tanks tearing around testing tracks and through the woods and all the noises that go along with an industry employing thousands of people, the Eagles prosper and multiply.
For years it seemed that more and more of the majestic birds were being seen but no one had ever really counted them. Neither the government nor the conservation groups were sure if the environment of an Army Test Center was conducive to the good health of the our National Symbol, at the time still an endangered species. At the urging of conservation groups and forward thinking wildlife officers in the Army and at the Test Center, a long-range study was undertaken to track the rise or the fall of the Bald Eagle at the vast Proving Ground.
There were several Environmental Contractors working on various projects at Aberdeen and one of them was awarded a contract to conduct a long-term analysis of the Eagle population. After some preliminary studies of their roosting and nesting habits, sites were picked to perform a twice-weekly count of the birds by age.
This where I came in…It was decided that they hire retirees to do the surveys. For two years, I made the trek to one of the roosting or nesting areas. I looked forward to the sight of this majestic bird coming to rest in a tree along one of the marshes off the Bay.
Every visit to their world brought a new revelation of the power and majesty of this unique bird of prey. From all indications at this particular site, it appears that our national symbol, the American Bald Eagle is alive and well.
I have been forced by a health problem to give up my vigil, monitoring these magnificent birds but I was given the privilege of spying on them for two years that I will never forget. As luck would have it, I am now living along the water near the Gunpowder and get to see the Eagles from Days Cove and the Edgewood Arsenal area of Aberdeen, fishing the area in front of my residence.
As strong as their numbers seem to be today, we must continue to monitor this species and all other endangered and protected species to ensure that their rightful place in our changing world is not diminished by man’s greed and carelessness.