COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP — How many bald eagles should there be in New Jersey?

It seemed like a simple question, but it stumped experts here in Mauricetown on Saturday for the 14th annual Winter Eagle Festival.

Bald eagles seem to be everywhere these days. They are even nesting in urban areas, pushing the envelope of where they were known to exist, and being seen in huge concentrations in southern New Jersey’s rural areas. The latest survey counted 264 of them in southern New Jersey alone.

The state was down to a single nesting pair in 1975, located at Bear Swamp in Downe Township, and the nest was failing due to the insecticide DDT thinning the eggshells. DDT was banned in 1972, and the state Department of Environmental Protection in 1983 began hacking Canadian eaglets, 60 over the next eight years, in a specially built tower in Cape May County.

It worked. A 2013 report by the DEP found 148 bald eagle nest sites in the state, with 41 percent of them in Cumberland and Salem counties. Last year, these nests produced 177 young.

Ann Stiles and her sister, Claire Luisi, were in Salem County one day in January and witnessed bald eagles of all different age groups arriving from almost every direction.

“I counted 63. They just came from every direction except the north. I’m seeing more eagles here than I do in Alaska,” Stiles said.

Kathleen Clark, a biologist with the DEP’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program, remembers when the goal was to restore the population to historic numbers. Those numbers, based on research in the early 1980s using historic records and interviewing old-timers, were just 22 nesting pairs.

“Now we have 22 pairs in one county,” Clark noted. “If they can survive and thrive in urban areas, then who knows what the cap is,” Clark said.

Director Lillian Armstrong, of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and Its Tributaries, said there are more than 30 nests on the Cohansey and Maurice rivers, but there is also a nest in Camden. Nests also have been found in Millville and outside Woodstown.

“They’re becoming more urbanized,” said Michael Hogan, a wildlife photographer from Dorothy, Weymouth Township.

Urban areas have helped peregrine falcons, Clark noted. There were 10 nesting pairs before DDT use, nesting on the cliffs and mountains that are their natural habitat, but by 1980, none were left. Now, post-DDT, there are 26 pairs in the state, with some nesting on urban high-rise buildings and feasting on pigeons.

“They could be artificially high due to urban areas,” Clark said.

The 22 known bald eagle pairs before the effects of DDT were recorded long after impacts from settlement, clearing for agriculture and industrialization of the state.

Nobody knows how many bald eagles were here when Swedish and Dutch settlers arrived in the early 17th century. As land was cleared for farms in the 18th and 19th centuries, the original numbers could have dropped significantly.

“In an agricultural society, it was an all-out war on raptors,” Clark noted.

The limit could come as eagles fight each other for food and nesting sites.

“Eagles will hit a limit at some point,” Clark said. “The Chesapeake Bay has seen eagle-on-eagle competition for five years now. They are competing where they hurt each other. The cap will be food and competition for nests.”

The ceiling still may be a way off. Bald eagles eat a lot of fish, and New Jersey is a state with a lot of coast and waterways. Clark said they will also nest fairly close to each other, about one mile away.

Meanwhile, the hundreds who turned out Saturday to see bald eagles and other raptors shows there is plenty of interest.

“We come here every year,” said Rick Martin of Mullica Hill, Gloucester County, who brought his 9-year-old daughter, Jenna.

“She’s been coming here for five years. She started asking me three weeks ago, ‘Dad, are we going to the Eagle Festival again?’ She knows it is right around the Super Bowl.”

The festival features field trips to see raptors, several live raptors being rehabilitated, lectures and wares that include books, apparel, photographs and artwork of birds of prey.

The festival is organized by the Cumberland County Cultural & Heritage Commission and Tourism Advisory Council with assistance from several other groups.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.