The Resurgence of our national emblem is evident on Alabama Power lakes.
Pat Reed was cruising along a bridge on Lake Martin one sunny winter afternoon five years ago when a bald eagle swooped down beside her at eye level. The majestic raptor glided beside the passenger side of her car for several hundred feet before peeling off and soaring toward the clear blue sky.
“It was just thrilling to her,” recalls her husband, Bob, editor of the Alabama Ornithological Society’s newsletter, The Yellowhammer. “We are believers in God. She felt like God had given her that gift.”
For the Reeds, long time bird-watchers who live in Tallassee, the encounter was a sure sign of the resurgence of the bald eagle in Alabama. The resurgence is evident on Alabama Power lakes, where they’ve become easier to spot in recent years.
Bald eagles once thrived in Alabama and throughout much of the continental United States. Their numbers began to decline steadily in the mid-1800s because of several factors, including loss of habitat and shootings by farmers who blamed them for killing poultry and small livestock.
But it was the introduction of DDT in 1940 that accelerated the decline of the bald eagle. DDT, a pesticide, served a variety of public health uses, including the eradication of malaria and control of body lice, typhus and the bubonic plague. Growers also used DDT on crops, including corn, cotton, beans and Brussels sprouts to fight off insects.
But the use of DDT had some major downsides — such as the decimation of raptors including the bald eagle.
“Substances like DDT move up the food chain,” explains Chad Fitch, Environmental Affairs specialist at Alabama Power. “DDT was (sprayed) on plants to get rid of insects. Some of the DDT got washed in the river. It was absorbed by algae and the algae were eaten by fish. The DDT got into fish flesh and the fish was eaten by eagles. So the female eagles laid eggs that were too brittle. Whenever they sat on eggs they would crush them. It was nearly impossible for them to hatch.”
Over the course of a century, the bald eagle, America’s venerable national emblem, was practically wiped out in Alabama.
In the mid-20th century, the U.S. government began taking aggressive measures nationwide to save the imperiled bird. The biggest step was the ban of DDT in 1972.
In Alabama, 91 young eagles were released between 1985 and 1991. Progress came slowly.
“In 1991, we had our first successful nest,” says Roger Clay, a wildlife biologist for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
There are now more than 200 adult eagles in the state, Clay says, and possibly more than 100 eaglets. The bald eagle has been taken off the endangered list but is still protected.
For the past several years, Alabama Power has worked closely with state and federal agencies to monitor the bald eagle’s recovery in Alabama. As part of this partnership, officials from the company’s Environmental Affairs Department survey reservoirs, including Harris, Martin, Weiss, Neely Henry, Mitchell, Jordan and Smith. They counted 10 birds in 2011, eight in 2012 and 21 last year, according to Jason Carlee, supervisor of water quality field services for Alabama Power.
The numbers suggest a dramatic increase in the bald eagle population since the company started participating in the survey in 2007.
Most bald eagles make their nests high up in pine trees along rivers and lakes because the bodies of water harbor their primary food source — fish. Fitch says you are more likely to see eagles on clear, sunny days. They are less likely to fly on cloudy or rainy days.
It’s easier to see the nests if you cruise the shorelines slowly by boat and scan the tallest pine trees. But you probably won’t see the birds.
“They are harder to see when they are roosting in trees,” Fitch says.
Reed says the number of eagles in Alabama rises significantly from November through February because many bald eagles migrate to the state during the cold months.
Alabama Power reservoirs are among some of the eagle spotting hot spots across the state. Reed says if you find a popular roosting area, you could see a large number of eagles at daybreak.
“In an hour’s time you might see 30 of them,” he says. “It’s just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and looking hard.”
Sometimes, you don’t even have to look that hard. A few years ago, Reed and his wife were enjoying a picnic lunch at a park when a bald eagle landed on a tree a few feet away. It stayed for a few moments, preening, staring and scanning the sky.
Then it flapped its enormous wings and soared.