The bald eagle population of the Chesapeake Bay watershed has reached its highest point in decades, according to figures to be released today by the EPA's Chesapeake Bay program.
The national bird remains on the endangered species list but is on its way to recovery, program spokesman Christopher Conner said yesterday.
Researchers conducting an annual baywide count found a nest with a fledgling in the District of Columbia, the first time since the 1940s.
The recovery can be attributed to improvements in water quality and eagle restoration efforts, said Frank Dawson, chairman of the bay program's living resources subcommittee.
Better water quality leads to more fish, which means more food for eagles. And shoreline-preservation programs have saved more habitat for the eagles.
The efforts "have brought the species from the edge of extinction to a viable population within the bay watershed," he said.
At one time, about 3,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles were in the bay watershed, but their numbers dwindled, at least partly because the birds were being poisoned by the pesticide DDT.
The chemical made egg shells brittle, and they cracked before young birds were ready to hatch.
By 1970, 90 breeding pairs were in the watershed. The birds began a slow comeback after the federal government banned DDT in 1972.
This year's count found 533 active nests containing 813 eaglets in the watershed.
Active nests are those with eggs or eaglets in them. Nesting birds are male and female pairs that have no offspring or eggs in their nest.
The birds found just downstream of the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers in the District of Columbia could be among 12 brought into the city from Wisconsin in the late 1990s, said Ira Palmer, program manager of the district's fisheries and wildlife division. Officials didn't want to disturb the birds, so they didn't get close enough to see whether they had identifying bands.
"We can surmise that this returning pair was part of the eagles project, but we can't confirm it," Palmer said. "Once they're established, they will continue to come back, and we will have time in the future to confirm whether they were or weren't from that project."
The largest nesting populations of bald eagles can be found along large tidal waterways of the bay and its tributaries, the Potomac, Choptank and Chester rivers, said Glenn Therres of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
But shoreline development could threaten the eagle's future, Conner said, emphasizing the importance of the provisions in Chesapeake 2000, the bay-restoration agreement signed in the summer.
The agreement calls for restoring 2,010 miles of forest buffers by 2010 and preserving 20 percent of the watershed from development.
"We're really on the right track to restoring bald eagles," Conner said. "Land-preservation goals and habitat enhancement will lead to more eagles."