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Fly, Eagles, Fly: Birds of Prey Return to Schuylkill Riverbanks

Bald Eagles in the Falls? Thanks to Federal regulations in the 1970’s, this national symbol has bounced back from the brink of extinction to hunt along our Wissahickon once again. 

Funny, we heard the eagle before we saw him — or, at least, heard some sort of screeching commotion above our heads as we walked down Hundred Steps Roxborough to the Wissahickon Bike Path.

Neither of us saw anything at the time, but about a quarter mile up the creek (across from Wissahickon Hall), there he was waaaay high up in a tree. Kinda looked like he might’ve been eating something, but then as we watched it was clear he was just preening.

Thank god for zoom lenses! The photo we shared on Facebook kicked off a ton of shares & comments:

“I saw one flying low over Indian Queen Lane a few years ago.”  — Kathleen Kelly

“I still haven’t seen an eagle in the Wissahickon but everyone else I know has. They are probably sitting in a tree right over my head!”  — Mark Pugnetti

“I saw it last week on Tilden!” — Keri Rozzi

Our resident Hawk Stalker, Carolyn Sutton, has seen East Falls’ eagle flying around Queen Lane reservoir — where some neighbors speculate there might be a nest. “I haven’t seen any signs of nesting,” she told us, which is actually kind of a good thing because a neighborhood eagle nest could be a big hassle.

“If you see an eagle nest, you must report it to the PA Game Commission (subject heading “Eagle Nest Information”) so it can be properly protected & monitored,” Carolyn said, which could mean cordoning off 1,000-foot perimeter, redirecting traffic, adding landscape buffers, restricting activity…

Ooh boy! Fortunately, our creek & river still offer prime nesting sites for these fish-loving birds of prey. Since the state began reintroducing eagles in the 80’s, populations have soared to a record high of 277 nests in 2015.

“It’s an accomplishment of which all Pennsylvanians can be proud,” Game Commission Executive Director R. Matthew Hough announced in a 2015 report.

Indeed, Pennsylvania shares special credit for the return of the American Bald Eagle, who might’ve gone extinct without Pennsylvanian activist Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring helped force Federal bans on DDT pesticides that were decimating the environment.

Although DDT is no longer a threat, many other chemicals & pollutants still are. Even more troubling, Pennsylvania’s eagle count for 2016 has deflated — Hough blames lack of funds for staff and programs. Last summer, legislation was on the table to draw revenue from increased hunting/fishing license fees, but it’s since been removed.

Hopefully, renewed measures in 2017 will insure more eagle sightings in East Falls and all around Philadelphia. Meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled! Winter’s the best time of year for spotting newcomers from Canada who migrate here temporarily when their fish sources freeze up.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE AN EAGLE? Pennsylvania Game Commission’s “Eagle Etiquette Guide” provides all you need to know (basically just be quiet and leave them alone). If you spot an injured eagle or other raptor etc, contact The Schuylkill Center’s wildlife clinic and follow the directions on their site. Read more about eagles & local conservation efforts in our original post below.

Original post November 10, 2014: 

With the Schuylkill River bouncing back, fish populations return and with them, their natural predators. Enter the American Bald Eagle, a once-common indigenous bird whose populations were decimated in the 1970’s by DDT pesticides.

Now, after 30 years of state-wide efforts to improve habitat and re-introduce the species into our forests, Philadelphians are catching sight of these magnificent, iconic creatures. In fact, in March 2014 the Pennsylvanian Game Commission confirmed the first successful eagle nest in Philadelphia County in 200 years.

eagle nest collage

And what nests they are, too!

Of all the birds in the world, Bald Eagles hold the record for the biggest nest ever built:  — 20 feet deep, 10 feet wide, and weighing almost three metric tons, recorded in Florida. The nests above are more typical, at about 5 – 6 feet with a “cone shape” (PS that’s a 6 foot tall man spread out in the photo on the right).

While the PA Game Commission’s not disclosing the size or even the whereabouts of our local eagle nest, recent sightings along the Schuylkill by East Falls birders hints perhaps at somewhere in the Wisssahickon…? In fact, rumor has it there might actually be TWO nests in the area!

East Falls Eagle

Area birder and raptor-watcher, Carolyn Sutton, sent us this photo of 2014’s “Falls Eagle” and noted:

“I’ve had several lifetime bird sightings right here in Philly, and last October saw a Bald Eagle (male I think) in a tree near Boathouse Row (we photographed him for a month).  This year, I almost ran off the road when I spotted another Bald Eagle (female) sitting on a pole at the Queen Lane Reservoir (Bowman and Henry).   Will a nest be next?”

Exciting news! Rowers have reported eagle sightings up and down the river all year.

kayak1 Michael Moulton PM

It’s a great time to get out on the water, not just to see the local wildlife but for a whole new perspective on East Falls, including old stone foundations — the ghosts of former mills and taverns? — lining our riverbanks.

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DID YOU KNOW? East Falls has plans for a public river landing! Soon, getting in the Schuylkill’ll be so easy maybe some of us’ll start rowing to work… 

LUNCHTIME UPDATE: A READER ASKS…

Q: I thought eagles ate mice and rats — what are they finding in the river?

A: According to Wikipedia, bald eagles are opportunistic feeders with a diet consisting mostly of fish, which they swoop down and snatch from the water with sharp talons. Based on 20 feeding habit studies across the species’ range, the average eagle eats 56% fish, 28% birds, 14% mammals and 2% carrion.

And by the way, contrary to some old myths (and doctored YouTube videos) — bald eagles do *not* hunt pets or children. Though strong and large, these birds only weigh 8 – 12 pound, and they can carry no more than 3 – 4 pounds in flight.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Steve

    Really cool

  2. Brian

    its great to hear that wildlife you wouldn’t think was in EF is here.

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