Pair of bald eagles nesting at Triadelphia Watershed First on record in Howard delight bird-watchers

September 21, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,SUN STAFF

For the first time on record, bald eagles are nesting in Howard County, giving local bird watchers plenty of opportunity to spot a bird near extinction in 1973 because of the pesticide DDT.

In the Triadelphia Watershed, a thin strip of forest following the Patuxent River and sandwiched between the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, two adult eagles have built a nest and raised five offspring in three years.

"It's always exciting to have a new bird documented in an area," said Joanne K. Solem, author of "Birding Howard County, Md." and a member of the Maryland Ornithological Society. "But to have bald eagles, which have such symbolic significance, arrive here is doubly thrilling because they illustrate the success of the ban on DDT."

The eagles also add a thrill to the workdays of security officers who patrol the reservoir for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which supplies water to Laurel and to Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"We had a couple of ospreys out here recently, diving for fish," recounted Cpl. Raymond D. Hohl, as he walked down the sloping concrete face of Brighton Dam toward his Boston Whaler patrol boat Tuesday. "The osprey would catch a fish -- and an eagle would dive at the osprey to make it drop its catch."

The technique is a favorite way for the white-headed, white-tailed scavengers to catch their supper, said Corporal Hohl, who makes a point of knowing the flora and fauna on his beat.

Corporal Hohl took a Sun photographer and reporter on a ride that would have delighted the telescope-wielding bird watchers who frequent the reservoir: past the buoys that keep boats away from the eagles' private cove and beyond the "no trespassing" signs that ban hunters.

The nest was empty Tuesday, but both eagles could be seen soaring across coves farther upstream, where anyone with a WSSC permit can enjoy the view.

Bird watchers say it's the first time bald eagles are known to have nested in Howard County.

"There have been no records of bald eagles nesting in the piedmont, up in this area away from the bay, for literally decades," said Mrs. Solem.

Mrs. Solem credits the WSSC with making a home for the eagles in the county. Eagles, she explained, depend on fish for their survival, so they tend to nest very close to large bodies of water.

In the early part of this century, when the Chesapeake Bay was still pristine and full of food, eagles would have been unlikely to linger in Howard County. "Now there are two major reservoirs in Howard County that didn't exist 100 years ago," she said, referring to Triadelphia and the Rocky Gorge reservoir in Laurel.

Nationally, as well as across the region, eagles are making a recovery from a devastating decline in population that led to their being declared an endangered species in 1973.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the population of nesting pairs, once thought to be in the thousands in the lower 48 states, dropped sharply. In 1963, there were 417 nesting pairs left. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists at what was then called the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel linked the decline to DDT, which caused the birds to lay eggs with shells so soft they crumpled when the birds sat on them.

Those scientists were instrumental in having the chemical banned in 1972, and by 1993 the eagle population had grown to 4,016 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.

Maryland's annual eagle census, started in 1977, rose from 41 pairs that year to 182 this year, said Glen Therres, a state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who is responsible for the state's eagle recovery effort.

And last year, the bald eagle's protective status was upgraded from endangered to threatened.

In recent years, the local research center, now known as the Patuxent Environmental Science Center and Patuxent Research Refuge, has served as an eagle hatchery, said Holliday Obrecht, refuge biologist there.

The bird's first set up a permanent perch in the area six years ago, said Corporal Hohl, when a pair built a nest on private property on the Montgomery County side of the watershed.

Although the eagles' home couldn't be disturbed because the birds still were listed as endangered, Corporal Hohl believes nearby development scared off the birds in 1992. But Mr. Therres believes storm damage to the nest, not development, caused the move to the Howard County side.

The new nest on protected WSSC property is a short walk through the woods from Dayton's Kalmia Farms subdivision, but Corporal Hohl warns that part of his job is keeping trespassers from disturbing the birds.

Since the eagles arrived, sightings have become almost commonplace in Howard County.

In 1994 and 1995, bird-watchers reported seeing bald eagles in Rockburn Branch Park in Elkridge, Centennial Park in Ellicott City, Oakland Mills village in Columbia and several sites near the reservoir.

Aelred Geis, a wildlife biologist who tests bird feed and feeders near Columbia's River Hill village, said his seed-pecking birds are routinely attacked by the sharp-beaked predators.

Eagles are only one of many birds of prey that have made a comeback locally since the ban on DDT.

"Over the last couple years, Cooper's hawks have come back all over this area," said Jim Ruos of Highland, a retired wildlife biologist who has studied raptors. "I know there was a nesting pair of Cooper's hawks less than 200 yards from my house."

How did he know?

"One of the neighbors had one fly into the window."

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