OPED: Water quality plays key role in return, survival of bald eagles
A new season of the Commonwealth’s most popular, high-flying reality show is back online.
Millions are expected to log on to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) website and watch as live-streaming cameras show the drama of nature at several bald eagle nests in the Keystone State. The experiences open windows onto nature like never before.
People went online more than one and a-half million times last year to see a pair of bald eagle raised two eaglets in a nest near Codorus State Park. They saw the entire process, from “nestorations” in January, laying of the eggs in February, hatching in March, and the eaglets leaving the nest in June, as it happened. This is the tenth year for the nest and the second that cameras and microphones are there.
Another popular nest is in a Hackberry tree in the town of Hays, along the Monongahela River, near Pittsburgh. The camera and sound are sponsored by the Western PA Audubon Society. This is the third season a camera has watched the nest that eagles first used in 2013. Sadly, neither of the two eggs in the Hays nest were viable last year. But the year before, three eaglets thrived and successfully left the nest.
Those who lognon to the live cameras realize quickly that waterways play a key role in the lives of bald eagles and nesting sites are never far from water. Streams, lakes, and rivers are key habitat for bald eagles. In the winter, they congregate in tall trees near open water, to spot prey and shelter at night.
Fish make up almost 90 percent of a bald eagle’s diet. Is there a more majestic sight than an eagle soaring and scanning open water, swooping gracefully downward, and then with their talons, plucking prey through the water’s surface?
The Codorus eagles feed fish from Lake Marburg, Codorus Creek, and other York County waterways to their young ones. Bass from the Monongahela is often on the menu at the Hays nest.
So it’s no secret that the survival and recovery of bald eagles in Pennsylvania are dependent on clean water, and the availability of healthy fish and other aquatic life. It is yet another reason we must make progress in restoring the 19,000 miles of waterways in Pennsylvania that are polluted. About 350 miles of waterways in York County are impaired.
The runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment is damaging our rivers and streams, and the Commonwealth is significantly behind in meeting its commitment to reduce polluted runoff.
Also, consider findings of the latest multi-year study of the causes behind the deaths of young smallmouth bass, and lesions and spots on older smallmouths in the Susquehanna River. Some of those fish are served up in bald eagle nests throughout central Pennsylvania.
Endocrine-disrupting compounds and herbicides, and pathogens and parasites, are the two most-likely causes of diseased and dying fish in the Susquehanna. They are part of a perfect storm of compounds such as cosmetics, detergents, pharmaceuticals, and hormones in animal and human waste, that find their way into the diets of bald eagles and other wildlife.
On the bright side, the resurgence of bald eagles nationally and in Pennsylvania is an endangered species success story.
Habitat destruction, contaminated food sources, and illegal shooting took bald eagles to the brink of extinction. The road to recovery took major turns when the pesticide DDT was banned in 1972, and in 1978 when bald eagles were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
In 1980, there were only three known pairs of bald eagles nesting in Pennsylvania. Re-introduction began in the 1980’s when the Game Commission brought 88 eaglets to the Commonwealth from Canada, raised them on specially constructed towers, and released them into the wild. Bald eagles were removed from the federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the lower 48 states in 2007.
By 2008 the number of nesting pairs in Pennsylvania had grown to 150. In 2013 there were nests in all but a handful of Keystone State counties and more than 270 nesting pairs.
Clean water counts in Pennsylvania. It is a legacy worth leaving future generations of humans and bald eagles.
To access the Codorus cameras, go to the PGC website at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
To access the Hays camera, visit www.pixcontroller.com/eagles.
Harry Campbell is PA executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.