The Daily Journal: Eagle Festival soars
As many as 335 eagles live in state
By Cody Glenn, staff
Sunday, February 10, 2013
COMMERCIAL — Those up for a winter trek through the most remote spots of southern Cumberland County have the best chance of seeing bald eagles plus more than 180 other species of birds.
The 13th annual Winter Eagle Festival on Saturday offered participants the opportunity to follow expert guides on multiple hikes through the outskirts of Newport, Dividing Creek and Port Norris to get a glimpse of the majestic fliers in their natural habitat using high-powered scopes.
The event also featured five lectures at the Mauricetown Fire Hall with topics ranging from osprey migration to photographing dragonflies as well as 30 exhibitors and vendors.
In the most recent count last winter, the NJ Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Survey conducted by the Cape May Bird Observatory tallied 335 bald eagles in the state and a record 135 bald eagle pairs.
Many of New Jersey’s bald eagles can be spotted near the banks of the Delaware Bay, and in the winter months that population grows because northern eagles migrate here for more readily available prey. Some 45 percent of the state’s bald eagle nests are located in Cumberland and Salem counties.
“Back in the 1970s, it used to be a real rarity to spot a bald eagle here,” said Brian Johnson, South Jersey preserve manager for Natural Lands Trust, on an afternoon hike through Bald Eagle Trail near Dividing Creek. “Now if you spend a weekend down here and don’t see one you’ve had your eyes closed. I think we’re at historic levels. The population is really healthy right now.”
As the bald eagle numbers climb so does interest in birding around the region.
Other walks held on the weekend included a Sunrise Walk and a dusk time Owl Watch both at Turkey Point, the Tat Starr Trail Walk off Fortescue Road in Newport and a Strawberry Avenue Traile Walk in Port Norris.
“I love seeing the beginners and their enthusiasm when they see an eagle for the first time,” said Karen Johnson, Brian’s wife, who lead the Owl Watch. “They get really jazzed up and it’s inspirational. Spotting an eagle or bird of prey will give you a shot of adrenaline.”
Forty years ago the notion of planning a festival centered on bald eagles would have been impossible.
That’s because by the 1970s only one nesting pair was left in the state due to the devastating effect of the pesticide DDT. The lone pair nested in Bear Swamp in southern Cumberland County.
The chemical caused the eagles’ eggs to be so weakened and thin that incubating pairs of bald eagles would crush the shell killing their offspring.
A 1972 ban on DDT combined with a reintroduction effort of bald eagles from Canada back to New Jersey has produced one of the true success stories of conservation groups.
“Some believe there are more eagles in New Jersey now than when the colonists came,” hike leader Steve Eisenhauer, regional director of stewardship and protection for Natural Lands Trust, told a group of 30 hikers. “It shows how we can get involved and help a species.”
But the day was about more than the bald eagle, our nation’s symbol of freedom, it also was about other birds of prey, such as red-tailed hawks, and other birds such as the American black ducks and gulls visible flying above the brackish marshland of Dividing Creek.
Participants also enjoyed the wildlife that didn’t have wings to fly.
Rudy Murphy, 7, of Absecon knelt down to get a quick peak inside the underground habitat of his favorite animal — the fox.
“The fox could be as big as you,” teased fellow hiker Wendy Walker of Millville.
Walker, a member of Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries, counted herself fortunate to reside so close to the wild.
“We are so rich in nature and open space — it’s a miracle,” Walker said. “If you fly over New Jersey, it’s one big overdeveloped mess until you get down here to Cumberland and Salem counties. People come from all over the world to bird here. Every time you spend time in nature you see and hear something different.”
Some participants in morning hikes claimed to have seen as many as eight bald eagles. Bald eagle sightings were rarer in the afternoon walks.
While the bald eagle populations are soaring, local ecology experts said the effects of Superstorm Sandy have seriously hurt other notable birds such as owls and hawks because so much of their prey — rice rats and meadow voles — were drowned in the flood levels caused by Sandy.
According to Matt Pisarski, principal planner for the Cumberland County Department of Planning, former freeholder Jeff Trout started the Winter Eagle Festival as a way to highlight the county’s “pristine natural ecology.”
“It’s become a collaborative team effort that works really well,” Pisarski said. “It’s always popular, especially with people from North Jersey and Philadelphia where they don’t have the open space we do. They come up to us and say it’s a ‘nice break.’”
Agencies collaborating to make the 13th annual Winter Eagle Festival possible included the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders, New Jersey Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, Cape May Bird Observatory, NJ’s Southern Shore, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Citizens United to Protect the Maurice River and its Tributaries, National Park Service, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Natural Lands Trust.