One of my most compelling Fourth of July memories occurred just five or six years ago.
I was spending that midsummer holiday, as I often do, fishing on the Juniata River. Early that afternoon while wading a tranquil and secluded section of the river, I glanced up to see a large dark bird gliding just above the tree line on the far shore. The unmistakable white head and tail identified it as a mature bald eagle.
I watched the eagle sail downriver for almost a half mile before it vanished from sight. Back then, I averaged three to five eagle sightings a year while fishing the river, but watching our national symbol soar by on Independence Day was indeed a special treat. So far this year, I believe I have spotted an eagle on about half my trips to the Juniata.
Having bald eagles become so commonplace adds much gratification to the outdoor experience and is a testament to one of the greatest success stories in wildlife restoration. Ironically, the need for such a restoration also embodies a shameful disregard for yet another natural resource.
When the bald eagle was adopted as our national symbol in the 1780s, there may have been as many as 100,000 mating pairs of eagles in what would eventually become the lower 48 states; by the 1960s there were less than 500. Many factors contributed to that regrettable decline.
Bald eagles feed mainly on fish and tend to live on or near large rivers and lakes. Increasing amounts of water pollution harmed the birds and killed off their food supplies. Increased development along our waterways deprived eagles of nesting and hunting sites. Improper use of certain pesticides such as DDT adversely affected many species of birds, including bald eagles. Most disgraceful is the fact that eagles were often shot indiscriminately until the 1940s.
When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, the bald eagle became a charter member of the endangered species list, with its last strongholds being Alaska and parts of Canada. Pennsylvania began a bald eagle restoration program in 1983 when just three eagle nests remained in the state, all of them in Crawford County. Over the next seven years, 88 young eagles were caught in the wild in Saskatchewan and released at sites on the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County and the Delaware River in Pike County.
By 1990, Pennsylvania had 8 active eagle nests, and by 2000, there were 48. Just six years later, more than 100 eagle nests were known. This year, 192 bald eagle nests have been documented around the state in 50 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, including nests literally in the shadows of our two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Crawford County leads the state with 22 eagle nests.
Many other states in the Northeast have experienced similar success with their own eagle restoration programs. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the federal endangered species list in 2007. The Game Commission, however, still classifies the bald eagle as a threatened species in Pennsylvania.
In our area, no confirmed eagle nest sites have been found so far in Bedford, Blair or Cambria counties. But bald eagles are regularly seen along the waterways of each of those counties, such as the Raystown Branch, Little Juniata River, Canoe Creek Lake and Glendale Lake, so it is probably just a matter of time until a pair of the big birds decides to take up housekeeping at some of those locations.
Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County has been the most prolific incubator of bald eagles in south-central Pennsylvania. Since 1999, 46 young eagles have been fledged there, and this year, six more young birds have been observed in the eagle nests around Raystown.
Bald eagles reach adulthood at four to five years, which is when they acquire their distinctive white head and tail. Younger birds are dark with patches of white on the body and the underside of the wings. Bald eagles are believed to live as long as 30 years in the wild, and a nesting pair of eagles in Pennsylvania was known to be 25 years old.
Weighing 8 to 14 pounds and having a wingspan of seven feet or more, a bald eagle in flight is an impressive creature, even at a distance. And the sight of one soaring wild and free in the summer sky sure beats standing in a crowd watching fireworks any day as far as I'm concerned.