Bald eagle soars to recovery

More bald eagles are in the air this winter than last, continuing a dramatic recovery that soon could be leveling off.

In a midwinter bird count conducted by several agencies in December, 652 bald eagles were spotted in South Carolina, compared with 601 last year.

There are now about 300 breeding pairs, well above the 200-pair goal that was a state target in the recovery effort. The best historical count of pairs was 500, by the Audubon Society before the collapse of the species in the mid-1900s.

Bird watchers say the species might be at or near the carrying capacity.

"It's a question purely of habitat. It's just not reasonable to expect to get to those (Audubon) numbers," said Jim Elliott, director of the International Center for Birds of Prey rehabilitation facility in Awendaw.

"Sustaining (the current population) is going to be hard enough." Laurel Barnhill, S.C. Natural Resources Department bird conservation director, agreed the numbers of birds and nests gradually is leveling off year-to-year, even though some 300 chicks are hatched annually. That suggests the population likely is reaching its peak.

The biggest reasons are people and the birds themselves. Most bald eagles live along the coast, where a Natural Resources report in 2007 cited management challenges associated with widespread, rapid development. The ferocious-eyed eagles are fiercely territorial. Every year, Elliott's center treats bald eagle with puncture wounds from battles with other eagles.

Elliott has watched the birds lock talons overhead.

"They define their territories visually: If an eagle can see another eagle, they're trespassing," he said. "That kind of space just isn't as available as it once was."

The wild card in how much further the population returns is the remarkable raptor itself. Its wings stretch 8 feet wide. Its keen eyes can spot a fish within three square miles while flying at 1,000 feet. It can fly at highway speeds and dive at some 200 mph to snatch fish.

The national symbol - once nearly wiped out in the lower 48 states by pesticide poisoning - has rebounded in South Carolina from as few as 13 breeding pairs in the 1960s. Nationwide, the bird has recovered so well it has been removed from the federal Endangered Species list and has become a conservation icon.

Last winter, Natural Resources performed its last of three decades of annual nest surveys. The birds now will be counted once every five years, supervised by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it will be a sample count rather than an overall population survey.

In the interim, the annual midwinter count of all species will "let us know if we're starting to get into trouble between those (five-year) counts," Barnhill said.

Once considered easily spooked, the birds are getting more accustomed to people and developed habitats, showing up in suburban trees and within sight of the Charleston peninsula. They also are turning up farther inland than in the past. Long considered to nest only in high, standing trees, the eagles made nests in "horizontal," knocked over trees in Cape Romain after Hurricane Hugo wiped out the forest, Elliott said.

"They're doing their part to make the changes they need to," Elliott said.

"It doesn't mean they're bomb-proof, but they are adaptable."