Bald eagles continue to make a dramatic recovery in New Jersey, according to the state’s census released this week.
Biologists counted 84 pairs — a record number — during the latest winter nesting season. By comparison, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife recorded 69 eagle pairs last year, a state record at the time.
New Jersey’s eagle nests produced 99 young, an average of 1.4 per nest. Statewide, volunteers counted 282 bald eagles — also a record — during the January Midwinter Eagle Survey.
The Delaware Bay is best for eagle-watching, with 40 percent of the state’s nests in Cumberland and Salem counties.
But birder John Adams, of Pine Hill, Camden County, on Wednesday sat in his pickup truck to guard against the freezing wind while scanning for eagles at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, in Galloway Township.
Adams did not have to wait long. An adult bald eagle fell out of the sky and hurtled toward a flock of black ducks, mallards and pintails on the impoundments. Missing twice, the bird of prey circled around for a third stab before landing in frustration on a dike.
The eagle’s resurgence has been good news for birders. On a recent outing to Forsythe, amateur photographer Mike DeBonis of Yardley, Pa., watched a bald eagle catch a green-winged teal as he rattled off more than 70 pictures at 5 frames per second.
DeBonis said he always keeps an eye out for eagles when he is taking nature pictures.
“They’re beautiful. They’re big birds, you know — huge,” he said. “Getting those pictures was a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Pete Dunne said he typically sees eagles on his morning walk in Cumberland County or when he drives to work at New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.
“I saw an eagle pursue an adult male northern harrier up until they were just dots in the sky,” Dunne said. “The eagle was chasing this harrier for a small rodent. He finally dropped the rodent and an eagle caught it in flight.”
The observatory’s Hawk Watch Platform at Cape May Point State Park also saw a record number of eagles this year — 430 — during its fall migration count. Observers such as Dunne spotted 46 bald eagles in a single day this year.
“It’s a really neat time to be living in South Jersey. Wildlife populations are very healthy,” he said.
Some wildlife groups were concerned the bald eagle might suffer when it was removed from Endangered Species Act protection in 2007.
Kathleen Clark, who works in the state’s Endangered and Non-Game Species Program, said federal officials continue to monitor the bird’s recovery.
Eagles still face challenges in New Jersey through the loss of habitat and the rigors of coastal life. Strong storms can destroy eagle nests. Chicks are vulnerable to predators.
But the birds have come a long way since 1981, when the chemical pesticide DDT made the eggs so fragile they were crushed by the parents. Eagle populations crashed until New Jersey was home to just one nesting pair — in Cumberland County’s Dividing Creek. And its eggs broke each year, too, Clark said.
Biologists collected wild eggs from this last nest and put them under adoptive chickens.
“They were really big, fluffy chickens. They were incubating machines,” Clark said.
The chickens did a better job caring for the eagle eggs than even laboratory conditions could provide, thanks to the hen’s motherly attentions, regulated body temperature and natural humidity, Clark said.
And since the hens weighed far less than eagles and the eggs were not rattled by winter storms, the eagle chicks hatched safely. Biologists returned them to their wild parents, which were sitting on fake eggs the whole time, Clark said.
Now there is no telling how many eagles the state’s waterways can support.
“We tend to look at the negatives. We’re the most densely populated state and have more roads and all that. But the truth is there is great habitat — good eagle habitat — that is unoccupied,” she said.
Eagles are so popular in southern New Jersey that Cumberland County has an annual festival celebrating them. More than 1,000 people are expected to take part in the next one, Feb. 6 in Commercial Township.
“We can almost guarantee sightings these days because they’re so plentiful,” festival spokeswoman Leslie Ficcaglia said. “It’s a magnificent sight.”
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