By Edward Colimore
The news photographers, state officials, and wildlife specialists were lined up with cameras in hand, like paparazzi waiting for celebrities at a red carpet event.
The big moment had arrived.
A white sheet was pulled back from a large crate, and the top was removed to reveal an adult bald eagle, who spread his wings, then shot up into the sky over Winslow Township.
A week earlier, the bird - with a six-foot wingspan - had been locked in a life-and-death struggle with another eagle over territorial claims in West Cape May, and was losing the fight when rescued by a state biologist.
With the eagle's recovery complete Tuesday, its release became symbolic of the species' wider comeback in New Jersey, which had one nesting pair in the 1980s and now has about 150 pairs. That number, up from 135 in 2012, produced 176 offspring.
"There's good news and bad news," said Kathy Clark, supervising biologist with the Endangered and Nongame Species Program of the Division of Fish and Wildlife in the state Department of Environmental Protection. "We have more eagle population, and it's doing well, so well that [the birds] are having more territorial battles."
Most of the state's eagles are in South Jersey, concentrated in Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May Counties, often along the Delaware River, state officials said.
Pennsylvania also has seen its eagle population rebound. Thirty years ago, only three nests were left in the entire commonwealth, state officials said.
With the help of the Canadian government, several agencies, including the Pennsylvania Game Commission, reintroduced bald eagle chicks to the state. Today, Pennsylvania has more than 250 nests.
The number of New Jersey eagles began slowly increasing after cleanup of waterways and the 1972 outlawing of the insecticide DDT, which disrupted the reproductive systems of females, causing infertile eggs and thinning of shells, DEP officials said.
In the 1980s, the eggs from one of the state's last nesting pairs were incubated, helping to begin the slow comeback. "Eagles usually raise one or two young a year," Clark said. "They live long and produce."
Their comeback and the health of other wildlife populations "is a good indicator of the overall health of the environment," said Fish and Wildlife Director David Chanda. "This is particularly true of birds of prey. . . ."
Not many years ago, "it would have been nearly miraculous to see a bald eagle in many parts of New Jersey, yet today we can marvel at this majestic creature returning to our skies," said David Wheeler, executive director of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation, which works with the DEP to protect eagles and other birds of prey.
Tuesday's event was used to encourage state taxpayers to designate contributions - when preparing their returns - for wildlife conservation programs. The funds are used to match or leverage funds in the federal government's State Wildlife Grants program. The sales of Conserve Wildlife license plates also help support the program.
The recovered eagle, released in the Winslow Wildlife Management Area in Camden County, was originally designated "C/50" and banded in April 2008 in Greenwich, Cumberland County.
No further contact was made with it until March 5, when a West Cape May woman called authorities to report the bloodied bird fighting - talon to talon - with another in the snow along Farmdale Road, next to a housing development.
Clark and a helper found the eagles exhausted after their hour-and-a-half struggle and tried to separate them. The one who was winning flew away as Clark carefully threw a towel over the injured eagle.
"You don't want to get on the wrong side of a talon," Clark said. "This was my first time" breaking up a fight between eagles.
"I almost didn't believe it," she said. The birds "weren't letting go. If they kept fighting, one of them would have lost an eye."
C/50 was transported to TriState Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Del., and treated for numerous injuries.
"Our veterinarian put him under anesthesia, cleaned out his wounds, sutured him up, and gave him antibiotics and pain medication," said Andrew Howey, TriState's clinic manager, who brought the eagle to Winslow. "The turnaround was quick."
The bird exercised in a 100-foot flight enclosure and was soon ready to return to the wild. "He's very feisty and strong," said Howey, whose facility has received five eagles in February and five in March, and up to 50 last year from locations in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. "They fight, get shot, hit by cars, or have lead poisoning from eating carrion with lead gunshot."
Tuesday, Winslow Mayor Barry Wright and local police officers joined state officials and reporters as a sheet-covered crate was brought out into a large field. "We have a lot of eagles in this area," Wright said. "Hopefully, this one will stay."
The six-year-old eagle - with his distinctive white head and yellow beak - got a look at the crowd and decided to head in the other direction.
"Normally, a wild bird would be released close to the area where it was found," said Clark. "Because this bird has a serious territorial dispute, we are hoping he will select a new territory. ..."
"We don't want him to pick up where he left off," she said, "but he'll probably make his way back to Cape May."
The bird perched on the branch of a tall tree on the edge of the field, then circled overhead. A red-tailed hawk flew nearby but wouldn't challenge an eagle.
"He needs to find his own place now - and his own mate," said Clark.