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Bald Eagle nest numbers take unexpected dip in 2013

Bald Eagle on nest
Bald Eagle on a nest.

Bald Eagle nest monitoring is an annual project of the Nongame Bird Program.  Fortunately, we are assisted by numerous partners and individuals such as the National Park Service-Missouri River National Recreational River, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Bald Eagles bred in the state historically but were absent as a breeding species for at least a century, if not longer.   Not all that long ago, Bald Eagles were state and federally listed as an endangered species and were at risk of being wiped out in much of the U.S.  In the latter part of the 20th Century, Bald Eagles recovered.  In 1991, Bald Eagles successfully nested in Nebraska after a long absence.  Since 1991, the number of Bald Eagle nests has increased and at a remarkable pace for a species that has a relatively slow rate of reproduction (compared to a species such as Ring-necked Pheasant).

In 2012, the number of active Bald Eagle nests in Nebraska reached 103.  This was the first year active Bald Eagle nest numbers surpassed that milestone of crossing century mark.  In 2013, our final tally of active Bald Eagle nests dipped by one to 102.  Yes, that is not much of a dip, but what is surprising is when we put this dip in the context of survey effort.  In 2013, the number of nests surveyed increased markedly, 117 to 153, from 2012.  In past years when survey effort increased we saw a proportional increase in active nest numbers.

Bald Eagle nest numbers in Nebraska 1987 - 2013
Number of Bald Eagle nests surveyed (blue line) and number of active nests (red line) in Nebraska from 1987 – 2013.  Note that even though the number of nests surveyed in 2013 increased markedly, the number of active nests actually decreased.

So does this mean Bald Eagles are once again in trouble?  Probably not, so remain calm!  The number of active nests is still ten times greater than what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified as a recovery goal back in the early 1980s.  This could be a short-term impact caused by the historic 2012 drought or just a random pause, blip, or anomaly.  It could also be the first indication that the number of active pairs (or nests) of Bald Eagles may be leveling off.  This has to occur at some point, Bald Eagles will not increase forever.  Finally, it could be an artifact of our survey approach, which does not have the statistical rigor of some of our other studies (which is OK with respect to our objectives and purposes).  We will have to wait for future nesting survey results to provide a definitive answer.  Nests of Bald Eagles remain concentrated along major river corridors, particularly in eastern and central Nebraska.

Nebraska's Bald Eagle nests
Spatial distribution of active Bald Eagle nests in Nebraska in 2013. Red icons are 2013 active nest locations.

No matter how you slice it, the recovery of Bald Eagles in Nebraska has been a remarkable conservation success story.  While this concludes our efforts for 2013, it is good to know the eagles are already preparing for next year (see below).

Wanahoo Bald Eagles
The Lake Wanahoo Bald Eagle pair started building a new nest at the north end of the lake in October. It appears they will be using new digs in 2014.

Remember, if you discover a Bald Eagle nest on your adventures, please do not hesitate dropping me a line at joel.jorgensen (at) nebraska.gov

We may already know about the nest, but it is always good to be sure so we do not miss any.

If you are interested in reading the full report, you can download it by clicking 2013 Nebraska Bald Eagle nesting report.

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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