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Jul. 2, 2020
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Eagle count lower in North Georgia

By Jane Harrison
 
Young bald eagles that fledged months ago on Lake Lanier likely are not vacationing on the lake. The birds that got flight lessons over Lanier’s blue waters may have taken off for summer on the Great Lakes. The few eaglets hatched from three active nests at the North Georgia lake in late winter probably flew north in June and, pending safe voyages, may return in August, according to Georgia eagle spy, Bob Sargent.
 
As director of the eagle survey for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Sargent gets to fly in a helicopter and peer down through binoculars on nests built by the national symbol of freedom and courage. “It’s inspiring to study these birds. It’s a highlight of my field year,” Sargent said in June, a day after birdwatchers reported viewing eaglets soaring on the lake. Georgia’s top eagle scholar believed the Lanier eagles were getting ready for a long journey, leaving their parents on home waters.
 
After they fledge on Lanier in early spring, juvenile eagles stay with their parents a few weeks and then may head north, Sargent said, possibly to the East Coast, Hudson Bay or the Great Lakes. They fly south again in late August. Transmitters on some eaglets indicate the adolescent birds get life lessons far from the nest before coming back.
 
DNR eagle survey results in 2020 showed that eagle nesting remains strong in the state, but the number of successful nests and young fledged in the northern part of the state declined this year compared to long-term averages. Sargent said the state likely had 200 or more eagle nests for the sixth straight year, despite the lower number in North Georgia.
 
Sargent speculated that substantial rainfall from January through March likely contributed to the region’s lower nest productivity. Hungry racoons and invasive great horned owls also likely took a few.
 
Checking by helicopter in January, March and early April, Sargent counted 117 eagle nest territories in three regions of the state: the six coastal counties; a section of east Georgia bounded roughly by interstates 16 and 85 and the South Carolina line; and the counties north of Atlanta. This year’s survey results also included seven nests monitored in other areas by volunteers or DNR staff.
 
In North Georgia, roughly a line north of Atlanta from Hall County westward to Floyd County, Sargent counted 15 occupied nest territories, with seven fledging at least one eaglet and 11 young fledged. Sargent found success rate for producing an eaglet declined 30 percent lower than average. The total number of fledglings counted declined sharply.
 
On Lanier, Sargent has spied on five eagle nests in his five years of surveying: two on the north end near Don Carter State Park, one “off the beaten path” opposite Gainesville Marina, one near a park peninsula in Gwinnett County, and another on an island on the south end.
 
Of those, the south lake nests were either not used or not successful this year. Eagles did not return to one near the state park. It’s possible that unused nests are spare homesites the parents did not choose this year. Sargent has observed that the territorial birds might have an alternative nest site in their territory to fall back on if a nest tree dies or other interference renders a site unusable.
 
The DNR does not reveal exact nest locations. The birds are easily disturbed if people get too close,” Sargent said. “Young can jump from the nest and end up on the ground.”
 
At this time of year, parent eagles around Lake Lanier go fishing, but not together. “Adult pairs don’t stick together” when not tending a nest, Sargent said. Mature birds consume a diet consisting about 70 percent of fish, but also swoop down on other prey near water. Expert birder Mark McShane, of Lawrenceville, posted photos on ebird.org of a pair of eagles diving into a raft of coots near Lanier Park peninsula in November 2019.
 
In his description of his first-ever sighting of eagles hunting coots on Lanier, McShane contrasted the near seven-foot wingspan of the predators with waterfowl half their size. “The frantic coots were constantly fleeing across the water and diving desperately to escape the eagles when the raptors closed in on them. One coot was eventually taken by an eagle which then sat on the water like some monstrous duck. The eagle held the coot underwater for a good while during which the second eagle, looking subadult IV (young adult), made multiple passes at the coots but did not catch one.”
 
Sargent noted that hundreds of coots in a large raft “look like an easy food opportunity,” but most of the time eagles’ talons snatch only air and water in numerous attempts. Eagles sometimes snap up snacks of turtles and water snakes, too, he said.
 
The young eagles exiting Lake Lanier in June and heading home in August look much different from the majestic birds seen as the national emblem. Young bald eagles do not have white heads and tails.

In fact, the species does not exhibit these characteristics until it is four to five years old, which is when it achieves sexual maturity. First and second-year eagles have mostly brown heads and tails, white wing pits and mottling on the wing. The third-year bird has less white mottling on the wing linings and breast and shows much white on the head and tail. The fourth-year bird looks like an adult except for scattered brown on the head and tail.
 
Sargent said it’s exciting to see bald eagles fly over Lanier, or anywhere, for that matter. Because of a high mortality rate, sightings of survivors are pretty special. Cold rain and early spring chills can kill new nestlings. Predators can move in. Once they develop their enormous wing spans, the fledgling bird must master the strength and coordination to soar, swoop and hunt. Accidents happen, including eagle combat, collisions with motor vehicles and utility lines, and consumption of poisoned rodents or prey bearing lead from hunters’ bullets.
 
“It’s tough learning now to be an eagle,” Sargent surmised. 

How to help with the eagle survey 
The best opportunity to see bald eagles is to look for them on islands and on large reservoirs and rivers during winter months, because the state’s eagle population increases during this time of year due to an influx of wintering eagles from the north. If you find an active eagle nest, report its location to bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov. Stay at least 330 feet away from an active eagle nest in compliance with federal guidelines.
 
Bald eagles return to their nesting territories in early fall and usually lay eggs between December and February. The eggs hatch about 35 days after being laid and the young leave the nest 11 to 14 weeks later, typically from late March to early May but occasionally in June.
 
Most eagle nests are located just below the upper canopy of trees. About 95 percent of nests are built in living, mature pine trees. There are records of bald eagle nests that exceeded 15 feet in height and weighed over 2,000 pounds.

 Posted online 6.26.20
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