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Bald Eagles Break Nest Record in 2014

Breaking records is something we have become accustomed to since Bald Eagles started nesting in the state after a long absence. Last year was no exception, as the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and our partners surveyed 146 Bald Eagle nests in 2014 and determined 111 of them to be active. Even though a record numbers of nests is a regular occurrence, and it is human nature to be lulled by the routine, it is worth taking a few moments to consider this species’ recovery as remarkable.

First, Bald Eagles were on federal and state endangered species lists as late as 2007 and 2008, respectively. It took a little bit of time for legal processes to catch up to population levels, and yes, it is prudent to be certain a population increase is not a flash-in-the-pan. However, in less than a quarter century this species has gone from a nonexistent breeding species to one that is relatively numerous in the state. For perspective, consider in the early 1980s when federal recovery plans were being written to save populations in the lower 48 states, the recovery goal for Nebraska was set at ten breeding pairs.  Ten breeding pairs in our state was the benchmark for success.  About a decade later, in 1991, Nebraska recorded its first active and successful Bald Eagle nest in about a century.  Sixteen years after that in 2007, the same year the species was removed from the federal list of endangered species, the number of nests had grown to 54 active nests.  Just seven years later in 2014, the number more than doubled to 111 active nests.

Adult Bald eagle on its' nest in April 2014.
An adult Bald eagle on its nest in Cherry County in April 2014.  This is one of the largest nests ever observed in Nebraska and we just learned that is has blown down.  However, it sounds as though the eagles have built a new nest nearby.  Photo by Lauren Dinan.

Another important fact to consider is that Bald Eagles have a relatively slow rate of reproduction compared to prolific species such pheasants or doves.  For a Bald Eagle pair to successfully nurture two or three eggs into independent young eagles takes three to four months.  The endeavor also requires a tremendous investment of time and energy.  If a Bald Eagle pair is experienced and lucky, they will raise two and sometimes even three eagles a year.  Our data shows that Nebraska Bald Eagle pairs have produced, on average, 1.8 eagles per year.  The most common source of nest failure in Nebraska is the nest tree blowing down, usually from winds associated with a severe thunderstorm.  Unlike other species, Bald Eagles will not re-nest in the same year if their nest fails.  Considering all of this and also that a number of immature and adult Bald Eagles die every year from various causes, we have still added, on average, about five nests each year in Nebraska.

Bald Eagle nests 1987-2014
Number of Bald Eagle nests surveyed (blue line) and number of active nests (red line) in Nebraska from 1987 – 2014.

The increase of nesting Bald Eagles in Nebraska has occurred over a time period when other species and natural communities have declined.  Other species have been added to the list of endangered species and others are currently being considered.  While broad generalizations should be taken in stride because there is always ebb and flow in nature, there is no question conservation of our state’s biodiversity is increasingly challenging.

2014 spatial distribution of Bald Eagle nests
Spatial distribution of active Bald Eagle nests in Nebraska in 2014. Red icons are 2014 active nest locations.

In just another week or two, Nebraska’s Bald Eagles will lay eggs and commence another nesting season.  Soon to follow will be biologists who will survey those nests.  As I mentioned, many partners contribute to Bald Eagle nest monitoring and they are listed below.  Perhaps the number of nests we will record in 2015 will set another record.  Maybe we will see many more records in the coming years.  With so many across the state, and even one on the city limits of Lincoln, many Nebraskans will have the opportunity to see nesting eagles this year.  However, a brief review of recent history reminds us that a lot can change in a few years and what we have, presently, should not be taken for granted.

If you are interested in more details about the Nongame Bird Program’s 2014 Bald Eagle nest survey, you can access our full report HERE.

Even though they have increased, Bald Eagles remain protected under the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.  It is unlawful to disturb Bald Eagles at anytime; and during the breeding season, disturbance may also cause nest abandonment.  Eagles in large numbers gathering at winter roosts are also protected.  With Bald Eagles nesting in a variety of situations, including at times relatively close to human activity, it may be difficult to know what constitutes disturbance.  Disturbance is any activity that changes an eagle’s behavior.   Sometimes “exclusion zones” are designated and are marked by signs at public areas to prevent disturbance to eagles.  Bottom line, individuals viewing nesting, winter roosting, perched Bald Eagles need to be responsible for their actions and take precautions to avoid disturbing the birds.  

Nongame Bird Blog

We thank all the entities that provided support to individuals on staff to conduct surveys.  In particular, we thank the National Park Service–Missouri National Recreational River and Platte River Recovery Implementation Program; staff from both entities monitored and provided data for numerous nests.  We also thank the Nebraska Department of Roads, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wildlife Division, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Fisheries Division,  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Law Enforcement Division, Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services–Nebraska Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nebraska Army National Guard, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and the Nebraska Public Power District.  We also thank the following individuals that provided information during the 2014 breeding season: Bob Allpress, Dave Baasch, Jim Beebe, Dave Brakenhoff, Mark Brogie, Mary Bomberger Brown, Mark Czaplewski, Kenny Dinan, Gail Ferris, Stan Ferris, Marlin French, Chris Funk, Heather Gill, Joe Gubanyi, Ken Haar, Tim Hall, Wendy Hall, Kit Hams, Kirk Hansen, Bob Harms, Amy Hauf, Paula Hoppe, Michele Fuhrer Hurt, Mark Hutchings,  Jim Jenniges, Robert Klusaw, Josh Kounovsky, Jeanine Lackey, Susie Ledford, Mark Lindvall, Melissa Marinovich, Wayne Mollhoff, Lucas Negus, Melvin Nenneman, Mark Peyton, Ben Rutten,  Rick Schmid, Brad Schwartz, Patrick Smith, Carol Sousek, Kevin Tobin, Larry Vrtiska, TJ Walker, Scott Wessel, Lisa Yager, Kirby Zicafoose, and Dave Zorn. 

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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