Cruising South Carolina's Bald Eagle Highways
Every year, hundreds of biologists and citizen scientists bundle up and brave the January cold to track down an American icon.
Traveling by foot, boat, and even plane, their goal is to count bald eagles along set routes over the course of two weeks. Since 1979, the nationally coordinated mid-winter bald eagle survey has provided biologists a snapshot of how this symbolic species is doing—and tells the story of its turnaround from the verge of vanishing in the lower 48 states.
On January 12 and 13, 2017, coastal SCDNR staff traveled nearly 200 miles by boat, surveying the lengths of the Cooper, Ashepoo, and Combahee Rivers. They counted 18 bald eagles on the Cooper and 37 along the undeveloped shores of the Ashepoo and Combahee in the ACE Basin.
All across the country, fellow bald eagle counters did the same, traveling mainly along rivers where eagles tend to nest.
SCDNR staff have participated in the mid-winter bald eagle survey since its inception, but coordination of the survey in South Carolina passed in 2009 to the Avian Conservation Center based in Awendaw. The U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coordinate the survey and data at the national level.
The near-disappearance of the bald eagle due to toxic insecticide use, shooting mortality, and lead poisoning was one of the primary motivators for the passage of the Endangered Species Act. Since then, decades of conservation efforts and legislation have also made it one of the Act’s most iconic success stories.
SCDNR biologist Charlotte Hope has witnessed the recovery first-hand.
“We had 13 bald eagle territories when SCDNR started surveying in South Carolina, and now we’re monitoring over 400,” said Hope. A territory refers to two adults on a nest site, which can remain active for generations, since eagles return to their territories and will take a new mate if their mate does not return. “There’s one territory that we have records for dating back from the 1930s.”
In 2007, U.S. officials removed the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act – but numerous federal and state laws, including the Migratory Bird Act and the Golden Eagle Act, continue to ensure the bald eagle’s protection, and violations of these laws can result in civil penalties, criminal penalties and/or prison.
Bald eagles still face threats such as collisions with powerlines and vehicles, poisoning, and new emerging diseases. The Avian Conservation Center, which treats and rehabilitates sick and injured birds of prey, has seen all of these cases in its 25-year history.
“Each year we also see a handful of young bald eagles in our Avian Medical Clinic,” said Emily Davis, who coordinates the mid-winter survey for the Avian Conservation Center. Working with SCDNR and looking at survey data allows the Center to match these sick or injured juveniles with the correct nest site. “We’re able to release or renest birds in the territories they come from.”
“Since the survey has been around since 1979, we are now facing the challenge of finding observers to take over established routes (and new routes as the eagles find new nesting sites). Many of the original surveyors are now retiring,” said Davis.
If you’d like to participate in a future mid-winter bald eagle survey, email Emily Davis at [email protected].
If you encounter an injured or dead bald eagle, immediately call the Avian Conservation Center (843-971-7474) or the SCDNR wildlife hotline (1-800-922-5431).