After two decades of sponsoring surveys, Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries has found something new: record-breaking numbers of American bald eagles in Cumberland County.

In the county, 82 bald eagles have been spotted, with a higher estimate of about 88. Just 12 years ago in 1998, only 17 bald eagles were observed in a survey of Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Atlantic, Burlington and Ocean counties, Press archives show.

"That number is really quite outstanding for the 10 spots they count," Citizens United President Jane Galetto said. "And they feel confident that they were not duplicative. They look at nests, plumage, whether they're adult or immature, and the directions they fly in. It's a pretty substantial (report)."

She also offered an explanation for the high count. Cold, harsh winters such as this year's push eagles from northern regions such as New England south. Ice, snow cover and diminished food resources prompt the move, she said, and the Delaware bayshore's resources are plentiful.

"This is undoubtedly related to the cold temperatures this winter," agreed wildlife biologist and researcher Clay Sutton. "They travel south until they find open water and feeding opportunities."

The birds can feed on muskrat and waterfowl in Cumberland County, Galetto said.

Sutton and his colleague Jim Dowdell counted a record 48 eagles on Jan. 12 along the Maurice River between Millville and the East Point lighthouse. According to Sutton, 14 eagles were in sight at one time, some in flight and some perched. Many, he said, were squabbling over food and chasing each other.

A day earlier, the crew counted 34 bald eagles on the Cohansey River.

But don't expect numbers to stay high, Galetto said. A lot of the bald eagles counted as part of the survey belong to a transient population. But as long as things remain cold this winter, the number of bald eagles spotted should stay the same, or even increase.

The increase in numbers means the population is spreading out. The bald eagles might even be seen where you would least expect them.

"Millville downtown," she said. "It's so surprising how many eagles can be seen right there. People don't usually birdwatch when they're standing on concrete, but Millville City Hall, in fact, is a great place to birdwatch if you just stop and pay attention."

Because City Hall is nearby to the Maurice River, Galetto said, the eagles have been spotted perched on the tall building. Mostly, however, the eagles can be seen near waterways, the farther from humans the better.

Contact Edward Van Embden:

856-649-2072