After retiring from a 21-year-career in the U.S. Navy, Jerry Bilton pursued a dream.
He grew up in tiny Eutawville, near Lake Marion, and attended Georgia Southern University, home of the Eagles. Before each football game, “Freedom,” a male American Bald Eagle, launches from high above the stands and lands at midfield to the roar of thousands of students and fans.
Bilton became fascinated with bald eagles. After the Navy, he started a photography business called Eagle Photography. He takes real estate photos as his retirement job, but travels the state in his off time to photograph bald eagles from the mountains to the coast, many at his boyhood stomping grounds around Lake Marion.
“I’m a die hard Eagles fan and they’re the symbol of our country,” said Bilton, 68, who now lives in Columbia. “I just fell in love with the bird and all it stands for.”
The Palmetto State has about 400 mated pairs of bald eagles, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Many more of the birds haven’t matured beyond the five years it takes for them to grow their distinctive white heads and yellow beaks.
“There are a lot of bald eagles in the state,” said Charlotte Hope, who oversees DNR’s eagle program.
The agency has a website that shows the locations of all the nests researchers have discovered. It can be accessed at http://www.dnr.sc.gov/wildlife/baldeagle/locations.html.
About 20 nests are in the Columbia area, most around Lake Murray, as eagles always nest near water. However, one prominent nest is on an island at the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers near Riverbanks Zoo, another east of Interstate 77 on land formerly known as Green Diamond, and a third in the Congaree swamp.
Another 30 are around Lake Marion.
The nests are only occupied from mating season in early October until fledglings mature in late April. During the summer months, most of South Carolina’s eagles migrate north to the Chesapeake Bay, Maine, Minnesota and other destinations.
But South Carolina and the nation didn’t always have such large numbers of the birds. In the 1970s, bald eagles were on the endangered species list in 43 of lower 48 states. South Carolina had just 13 mated pairs, and Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee had none.
“They were struggling to survive,” Bilton said. “But they’ve made a comeback.”
The bald eagle was adopted as the nation’s symbol in 1782 over the objections of Ben Franklin, who wanted the turkey to be the national bird.
Through the years, they lived in every state in the union except Hawaii (there are still none there). Early on, there were as many 100,000 nesting bald eagles in the continental United States and Alaska.
But for decades, eagles were routinely shot because they were believed to be a threat to the salmon population and livestock such as chickens and lambs. Bounties were offered for eagle carcasses.
By 1940, the decline of bald eagles compelled Congress to pass the first Bald Eagle Protection Act, which outlawed the killing or disturbing of eagles, the possession of eagle feathers and eggs and the destruction of nests.
But with the widespread use of the insecticide DDT beginning in the mid-1940s, bald eagle populations declined drastically. DDT caused the eagle’s egg shells to become so thin that they would easily break.
“They couldn’t sit on them,” Hope said.
By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs were found in the lower 48 states.
In 1972, an amendment to the protection act increased penalties for killing or disturbing bald eagles to $5,000 or one year imprisonment for a first offense and $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second offense.
As the dangers of DDT became known, in large part because of the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” the Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 took the historic and, at the time, controversial step of banning the use of DDT in the United States. It was the first step on the road to recovery for the bald eagle.
DDT was banned from use in the United States in 1972 and in Canada in 1973, making it possible for recovery programs to be successful. The banning of lead shot for killing waterfowl – which bald eagles feed on, particularly coots, a small duck-like waterbird – also boosted the populations.
In South Carolina, which had a base population of nesting pairs even during the 1970s, bald eagles have come back pretty much on their own.
But about 15 states have released bald eagles from artificial nests called “hack” towers in order to restore natural nesting.
Sometimes eggs are taken from bald eagle nests shortly after they are laid, prompting the birds to lay a second brood, Hope said. The eggs are then incubated in the hack towers.
For instance, by the end of 2015, the American Eagle Foundation had released 145 young bald eagles from its Douglas Lake, Tenn., hack site, the largest number of any hack releases in the state. And the foundation has assisted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and other partners in the hacking of hundreds of other eaglets.
Many eaglets that have been released from the program, banded and tagged have been spotted years later by people as far away as the Great Lakes.
Birds return to the same nests each year. Sometimes those nests are much older than the birds themselves.
The reason is that when one of the nesting pair dies, the surviving bird recruits a younger mate. When the older bird dies, the new mate recruits a younger bird. And so it goes.
In many areas of South Carolina, however, development is encroaching on these sometimes decades-old nests.
For instance, there is a nest in the Sterling Lake/Governor’s Grant subdivision at Lake Murray, Hope said. Although there are buffers around the nest, there is an issue.
“Now they are in somebody’s back yard,” Hope said.
The bald eagles who have been returning to the nest are used to the development and people because they watched it being built, Hope said. But when one of the birds dies, a new recruit will be afraid and not choose a mate at that nest. So the remaining bird can’t reproduce.
“That’s happening a lot around Charlotte,” Hope said. “Around Rock Hill and Lake Wylie.”
A remarkable recovery
There are other more serious threats — most collisions with cars and power lines, Hope said.
But a more insidious threat is the presence in the state’s lakes of the non-native invasive plant hydrilla, which is a submersed, exotic plant once used in aquariums. It found its way into waterways in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s and has now spread its way across the nation.
When eaten by waterfowl, like coots, it causes a disease called get Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy. The disease causes lesions in the brains of waterfowl.
“As a result, the coots can’t fly well or swim well,” Hope said. “So they are easy prey for the eagles. And the eagles will be dead in days.”
Still, eagles have a big presence in South Carolina. And more nests are being discovered each season, mostly because developers clear a forest, making them more visible.
Hope charts nests in one-third of the state by air each year — about 125 to 150 nests per year.
“When I started, bald eagles were endangered,” she said. “But now they’re doing very well. They’ve made a remarkable recovery.”