By Ranger Tara Whitsel
Freedom. Strength. Resilience. The Bald Eagle represents a multitude of things. Since the mid 1970’s Bald Eagles have been making a slow and steady comeback from the effects of habitat loss and DDT pesticide use. Fortunately, Raystown Lake has played witness to that success with populations steadily increasing around the lake.
The staff at Raystown Lake observed and began monitoring the first known eagle nest on the lake in 1999 near the Raystown Dam. To date, five nests have been located around the lake in addition to a steady migratory population. Each year the Natural Resource Staff at Raystown Lake implements a monitoring program to support the Pennsylvania Game Commission in their efforts to monitor and track bald eagle nesting within the Commonwealth. Although the bald eagle was removed from the Federal Endangered Species List, it remains federally protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Protection Treaty Act. In addition, the bald eagle remains on the threatened species list in Pennsylvania and therefore protected under the Game and Wildlife Code.
Monitoring efforts begin in January when the Corps joined the PA Game Commission on a state-wide mid winter bald eagle survey. The purpose of this survey is to count the number of eagles across the state during a very specific period of time. The first survey was conducted on Raystown in 1990 with only 2 eagles being observed and while that number fluctuates each year due to a variety of lake and surveying conditions we have observed as many as 19 eagles during a single event, which includes both adults and juveniles. The Raystown Staff continues monitoring efforts over the course of the next 6 months to determine which nests will be utilized by a pair during the breeding season and the number of successful fledglings produced in each nest.
Since nesting was first observed at Raystown Lake, 2013 marked the fledging of the 70th at Raystown. Across the state, eagles typically begin nesting activities which includes cleaning and enlarging their nest during January and February. A female typically lays between one to three eggs that hatch sometime in late March or early April, which is approximately 35 days after incubation has begun. Both adults will tend to and feed the young until they leave the nest, or fledge, which at Raystown occurs on or around the fourth of July. The juveniles will remain near the nest throughout the fall observing other eagles and practicing their hunting skills.
To spot the eagles look skyward or toward shoreline trees with open branches. Generally, adult eagles are quite easy to spot with their signature white head and tail. Juvenile eagles have proven to be a slightly greater challenge to properly identify. While juvenile eagles are still significantly large birds; they retain brown feathers over the entire body until they are approximately four years of age and typically demonstrate the full white head and tail by age five.
If you are looking for the nests, the easiest nest to view is located across the lake from the public access area of the Raystown Dam. Many are surprised however, to find that the nest they are currently observing is not the original nest discovered in 1999. While we strongly believe it to be the same pair of eagles, the nest has actually been replaced three times, as each prior nest has lasted only a few years before either the tree in which the nest was located fell during winter or spring storms or the nest has fallen out of the tree due to its increase in size each year. After each loss of nest, the pair has usually rebuilt within a 100 yards of the previous nest site and generally within a few weeks if the start of breading season was near. The remaining four nests require a boat or a very dedicated and strenuous hike for observation.
We encourage you to take the challenge and visit Raystown for the opportunity to observe these powerful yet graceful birds of prey as they hunt and tend to their young. We do ask that you observe posted restrictions and not encroach upon the nests as we take each precaution to encourage successful nesting and development of Raystown’s bald eagles.
About the author: Ranger Tara Whitsel has been a Park Ranger/Natural Resource Specialist for the Raystown Lake Project since 2003 where she is responsible for ensuring the protection of the projects natural resources. Prior to joining the Raystown team, Tara began her career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a seasonal Park Ranger at Blue Marsh Lake, Philadelphia District in 2000. Tara is a 2003 graduate of Kutztown University with a B.S. in Environmental Biology. Tara currently resides in Southern Huntingdon County with her family. Together they enjoy all types of outdoor activities.
Eagle Update: This year, there have been no confirmed juveniles in the Raystown nests. By this time of year, they can usually be seen in the limbs surrounding the nest, exercising and getting their wings ready to fly, but none of that behavior has been observed. We speculate that this is because of the extended winter and ice cover on the lake. However, adult eagles are still in the area.
This is the first year that the Shy Beaver nesting pair has not been successful. Monitoring will continue, and hopefully next spring will be once again fruitful for the eagles of Raystown.