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Bald eagles make a soaring comeback in southeast Wisconsin

Posted at 9:26 AM, Feb 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-09 10:26:46-05

MILTON, Wis. (AP) — Gary Shackelford of north Rock County looked at the sky last March 11 and saw a remarkable gathering.

Circling over his neighbor's pond, bald eagles swirled in an aerial ballet.

"I was astounded to see so many at once," Shackelford said to the Janesville Gazette.

He walked closer to get a better view and began counting.


Maybe more.

Most were young and did not yet have their distinctive white heads.

Many of us have never seen such a majestic kettle, which is the term for a group of eagles soaring together.

But Rock and Walworth county residents are sighting eagles more often these days.

Once listed on the state and federal endangered species lists, bald eagles have made a soaring comeback.

Nesting surveys conducted last year by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources revealed a record number of nesting birds, with 1,695 nests occupied by breeding adults.

The number included the first reported nest in 50 years in Walworth County, and 11 nests in Rock County.

A resident contacted Sharon Fandel, a DNR district ecologist with the Natural Heritage Conservation program, to let her know of the nest in Walworth County.

"He allowed me on the property," she said. "We were able to confirm it was a bald eagle's nest. It has long been our suspicion there are more nests in southeastern Wisconsin than we are able to confirm in our aerial surveys."

Milwaukee County remains the only county in the state without a confirmed nest. But Fandel said it is only a matter of time before nesting eagles are there as well.

People of a certain age remember when bald eagles were a rare sight. Eagle numbers plummeted to dangerously low levels because of the presence of DDT, a pesticide, in the environment, which caused eagles' eggshells to weaken and break during incubation.

In 1967, only 72 bald eagles were recorded in the state.

The population began to stabilize and grow after Wisconsin lawmakers banned DDT in January 1970 and a national ban followed in 1972.

In addition, the growing eagle population is the result of protections from the state and federal endangered species laws and the efforts of the DNR and others to monitor the birds, Fandel said.

Bald eagles were removed from the state endangered species list in 1997 and the federal list in 2007. However, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act still protect eagles and their nests.

The 2018 number of nests topped the previous year's total by 105. Still, bald eagles have room to grow, Fandel said.

In many areas, their numbers increase year after year as long as habitat close to open water and suitable nesting trees are available.

"Eagles have shown themselves to be quite adaptable," Fandel said. "Some even live in cities. In the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, they've had well over 60 pairs in the metro area for years."

She cautions people never to disturb birds on their roosts or to approach so close that they fly away.

Raptor rehabilitator Dianne Moller often is asked to do programs during Bald Eagle Days in communities along the Mississippi River and the Fox River Valley.

Then she thought, "Let's have a celebration in Rock County, where the number of eagles is on the rise."

Moller of Hoo's Woods Raptor Center will soon present a free indoor education program about eagles at Northside Intermediate School in Milton.

"There are a lot of people who love eagles," Moller said. "They want to learn about them. They want to know where they can find them."

Moller will bring several education birds, which cannot be released into the wild because of permanent disabilities. They include an immature bald eagle and a 20-year-old golden eagle.

She also will bring a second immature bald eagle, which came to Hoo's Woods in late fall with a neurological injury.

"A landowner found her running on the ground," Moller explained. "She had a spinal injury, but she is now ready to go."

The rehabilitated bald eagle will be released behind the school.

Moller has rescued more than a dozen bald eagles in the last five years. Many come in with lead or pesticide poisoning.

Hoo's Woods helps birds of prey through education, rehabilitation and conservation.

Moller said she is doing the program as a way "of giving back to our community, which has so warmly supported us for the past 20 years."

Gary Shackelford and his wife, Penny, own 380 acres called Fair Meadows south of Lake Koshkonong.

The Shackelfords are land stewards who have managed their property to encourage plant and animal diversity.

Many species of birds use the property for breeding, for a winter home or for migration stopovers.

They discovered an eagle nest on their land in July 2010.

"We know at least one eaglet fledged," Penny said. "We later saw him in branches."

In previous years, the Shackelfords had cleared buckthorn and put the branches on a pile. Eagles used branches from the pile to build and repair their nest, which is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The birds fledged from one to three eaglets in the nest annually through 2016.

The next year, eagles built a nest in a white pine that lost its top in a tornado in 2005. The eagles used the nest again last summer to raise two youngsters.

The Shackelfords estimate 18 young birds have fledged on their property since 2010.

"Eagles have been on the increase for several years," Gary said. "They are the most common bird of prey we see in winter."

Penny warned that the powerful birds still face problems.

"One of the main causes of their mortality now is lead, which comes from lead ammunition," she said.

"Eagles eat dead carrion which has been shot. The shot explodes into tiny pieces and is extremely toxic."

Penny and Gary believe eagles will raise young again this year in the pine tree nest.

"If that is true, it will be the 10th year we had eagles nesting at Fair Meadows," Gary said. "That's amazing."