FORSYTH — Chalk up another solid nesting year for bald eagles in Georgia.
Department of Natural Resources aerial surveys in January and March documented 142 occupied nesting territories, 111 successful nests and 175 young fledged. Totals for eaglets and successful nests declined slightly compared with 2010, when the respective counts were 194 and 122.
But the number of occupied nests increased from 139 last year.
Each count this year topped 2009, when the statewide search revealed 128 occupied or active territories, 101 successful nests — those in which young are raised to the point they can fly — and 166 eaglets.
Survey leader Jim Ozier said the fluctuations could reflect factors such as harsh weather and sampling error, and "are not outside the range we would expect." His opinion is the state’s bald eagle population is strong.
"I think it will continue to grow," said Ozier, a program manager in the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.
Thanks to conservation laws, restoration work and a ban on the pesticide DDT, bald eagles have rebounded from near-extinction through much of their range 40 years ago. Nests numbered in the single digits in Georgia when Ozier started searching for them more than two decades ago.
Nesting territories steadily increased and then surged to 96 in 2006 and beyond 100 in recent years.
Ozier and others are concerned about the impact of avian vacuolar myelinopathy, or AVM, a neurological disease deadly to waterbirds, mainly coots and bald eagles. One suspected link is that coots ingest a strain of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae common on submerged aquatic plants — particularly hydrilla — and a toxin in the algae sickens eagles that eat contaminated coots.
Discovered in Arkansas in 1995, AVM has been documented in Georgia at lakes Clarks Hill, Juliette, Varner and West Point and some small reservoirs near Atlanta. Clarks Hill, also known as J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir, is a hotspot. Eagle nesting territories on the lake have dwindled from eight to one, Ozier said.
He saw two adult eagles dead on nests there this year. At one of the nests, another dead adult eagle was found a few days later on the ground below. Apparently both members of this nesting pair were lost at about the same time.
Scientists are researching AVM and what can be done to combat it.
Although concentrated on the coast, bald eagle nests are found across the state, usually near major rivers and lakes where the fish, birds and turtles that eagles eat are abundant. The nests are big — averaging 5 feet wide — but they can be hard to find. Ozier said he encourages the public to let his office know of any eagle nests they see by going to www.georgiawildlife.com/node/1322 or calling 478-994-1438. Each year, these reports lead to the documentation of nests not monitored before.
DNR works with landowners to help protect nests on their property.
Bald eagles are one of more than 600 high-priority nongame animals and plants identified in the Georgia Wildlife Action Plan, a strategy guiding conservation efforts statewide. Georgians also can help conserve eagles and other rare and endangered nongame wildlife by contributing to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund checkoff on their state income tax returns.
The Wildlife Conservation Fund supports conservation of animals from sea turtles to southeastern American kestrels, as well as native plants and natural habitats. DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section also uses donations to attract and match grants, gaining about $1 for every 25 cents spent.