Bald eagles are soaring again in Vermont. The magnificent birds were pushed to the brink of extinction by hunting, habitat loss and pesticide poisoning.
For decades, no eagles nested in the Green Mountain State. Now, the birds of prey have recovered to the point where the state is ready to take them off the endangered species list.
State wildlife biologist Doug Morin has his spotting scope aimed at a large pine tree towering over a cemetery in Barnet, near the Connecticut River. This time of year, it’s a reliable spot for an eagle sighting. A bird obliges.
“We can see a little white head sticking up in there,” Morin said. “So from our volunteer monitor, and what we’re seeing now: ... a white head sitting on the nest, it’s pretty likely that that’s the female incubating eggs right now.”
Morin, the bird project leader at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said the eagles’ recovery has been strong and steady in Vermont since a breeding pair took up residence in the state in 2008.
“It really is a great story," he said. "With a lot of issues that we look at today that are complex and difficult … you know, it’s easy to despair about [them].”
After we spy on the nest for a few minutes, a bird takes off from the pine tree and slowly soars out of sight, while its mate stays behind. Morin speculates that it was the male, leaving in search of food for the mother-to-be.
The state counts eagles that nest here, as well as those that may commute back and forth across Lake Champlain, the Connecticut River or from a neighboring state or Quebec.
"It really is a great story. With a lot of issues that we look at today that are complex and difficult ... you know, it's easy to despair about [them]."Doug Morin
Twenty years ago, there were no eagles reproducing in Vermont. Now, the number of breeding pairs in the broader area is up to 52. Those birds produced 64 chicks last year.
“So those were all-time highs. The population just keeps growing and growing,” Morin said.
But it was a slow start. Vermont was the last state in the lower 48 to have a successfully breeding pair, despite there being ideal habitat for them here, along rivers and lakes.
In the early 2000s, then-Sen. Jim Jeffords secured an appropriation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce the birds to the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, near Lake Champlain in Addison County. Meanwhile, other eagles flew in from other states and nested in Vermont.
Now, their recovery has progressed to the point where the state is ready to take them off the endangered species list.
Morin said that’s the goal of any listing. When a species is classified as endangered, scientists develop a recovery plan; they track progress and when it’s time, the state removes the species from the list.
“We can take it for what it is: as a real success,” he said. “And species that go on the endangered species list should be able to be removed when they’re meeting their targets.”
Audubon Vermont, the state chapter of the national group, supports the move.
Margaret Fowle, a conservation biologist with the organization, noted that other laws – including the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act – still offer substantial legal protection. She said as long at their breeding habitat is secure, the eagles should continue to thrive here.
“Protected from disturbance is really the biggest issue,” she said. “But seeing this steady increase over the last not-quite-20 years, really bodes well for the future of eagles.”
Vt. Secretary of Natural Resources July Moore agreed.
“It’s an exciting moment. And frankly, I look at this as building on the history we’ve had of successfully recovering birds in Vermont, including osprey and peregrine falcon and common loons,” she said.
Moore compared the eagles’ resurgence to that of other birds also harmed by habitat loss and the pesticide DDT.
When DDT was banned in 1972, these birds began their long road to recovery. And like the loon, osprey and peregrine falcon, which have all been removed from the state endangered list, Moore said the eagle can come off as well.
Like many people, she can remember the first time she saw an eagle in Vermont, back when she worked as a consulting engineer in Montpelier.
"I was up on a third floor of a building that looked down over the Winooski River,” she said. “And one flew at window height down the river. And it was just incredible, and people literally walked the entire length of the office building following this bird as it soared past. It’s an incredible sight.”
"We can take it for what it is: as a real success. And species that go on the endangered species list should be able to be removed when they're meeting their targets."Doug Morin
Seeing an eagle with its 5- to 7-foot wingspan soar nearby is an unforgettable sight. As it turns out, the charismatic bird is not just the nation’s symbol; it's also bit of a tourist attraction, and may get the public involved in protecting wildlife.
Judy Berube underscored that point when she stopped her car to see what Doug Morin and I were looking at. We had driven up Interstate 91 to check out another magnificent bird that's doing well again in Vermont: a peregrine falcon perched high on a cliff above the roadway.
Berube said that she often drives over from her home in Rutland to the Connecticut River to check out the scenery and the wildlife.
“We’re going to the dam, to the Moore Dam," she said. "And we went to the Hartland Dam and saw three eagles, two of them flying together, and then some hawks.”
Morin told her that there’s a nesting pair near the Moore dam.
He trained the spotting scope so she could get a look at the slate-colored falcon. “There, do you see him?” he asked.
Berube had a one word answer: “Beautiful!”
But it’s not all good news in the Vermont avian world.
While large predators like eagles and ospreys are doing well, Audubon’s Margaret Fowle said another group of birds called aerial insectivores – such as swallows and chimney swifts – are in serious trouble.
She said there are probably several reasons for their dwindling numbers, including a decline in certain insects and habitat loss in their wintering areas in Central and South America.
“And that’s not the only species [of concern] out there” she said. “Grassland birds are declining, shrub land birds are declining. So there’s lots to think about. But it’s basically going to come down to making sure there’s enough habitat for these birds, as well as making sure some of the impacts, like chemical impacts, aren’t there.”
The bald eagle's story is a hopeful message that humans can undo damage to nature. It’s also a reminder of our continuing impact on other species.
This story originally appeared on Vermont Pubklic Radio's VPR.org.