By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. — With the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act passing without much turbulence, the American Bald Eagle continues to fly steady as an icon for the United States due to conservation efforts.
Ryan Van Zant of the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center said there were not any nesting pairs in Oklahoma from 1973 to the early 1990s when Southern Bald Eagles were released into the wild with the goal to sustain 10 nesting pairs within the state. The goal was exceeded exponentially with more than 100 nesting pairs living in the area year round in 2014.
“The rebound of the Bald Eagle and its removal from the Endangered Species List is one of nature’s, and man’s, greatest success stories,” said Payne County Audubon Society President Susan Walker. “I know of six nesting bald eagles between Tulsa and Sooner Lake.”
On a field trip to Sooner Lake led by John Couch and Payne County Audubon’s field trip chairman John Polo, the group sighted 26 Bald Eagles.
“Though these birds are now fairly commonly sighted, seeing one is still thrilling,” Walker said.
The Endangered Species Act helped protect American Bald Eagles but the ban on DDT in 1972 served to preserve the birds from extinction, Van Zant said. DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, weakened eagle and other bird egg shells so much that the eggs would collapse under the mother. The chemical was introduced in the 1940s and already had decimated bird populations by the early 1960s. The removal of DDT from the market allowed eagle eggs to regain strength, and the raptors began a recovery.
“Birds are often a predictor of human problems so we prevented some damage to people by seeing what DDT did to eagles,” Van Zant said.
The majestic Bald Eagles are in their element now but, as temperatures begin to warm, the Northern Bald Eagles will migrate to Canada and the Great Lakes areas. Continued cold temperatures have kept the eagles in Oklahoma longer, said Army Corps of Engineer Ranger Samuel Skaggs at the Kaw Lake Ultimate Eagle Watch in January.
“At the end of March, they will be harder to spot,” Skaggs said. “It’s also more difficult to see them through foliage.”
Eagles begin arriving in Oklahoma in November and early December when waterways freeze in northern states, which impedes fishing for food. Bald Eagles are sociable in winter, roosting communally in trees near a food source such as a lake.
“Usually eagles feed early in the morning on fish and may not feed every day. They detect prey by soaring or from a high perch,” Skaggs said.
Anywhere from 800 to 2,000 eagles have been sighted across the state of Oklahoma.
“The colder the temperatures up north, the more eagles are seen,” Skaggs said.
Although off the endangered list since 2007, the birds are still protected by other acts and have soared to recovery, living in Stillwater’s backyard now. Resident Deb Hirt has spotted American Bald Eagles at Boomer Lake near Airport Road in a naked, deciduous tree. With seven-foot wingspans and bright white crowns, the grand size and distinguished appearance of these birds make them easy to spot and watch with the chilly veil of winter hanging on throughout the area.
Kaw Lake, Stillwater’s water source, is home to one of the state’s largest populations of Bald Eagles, featuring wintering and nesting eagles, Van Zant said. Kaw Lake was the site of a reintroduction effort between 1984 and 1992 that saw 275 American Bald Eagles released into the wild.
“The eggs actually came from Florida nests. We are seeing the great-grandchildren of the birds released in the early 90s,” Van Zant said. “Our national symbol — once absent from our skies and now recovered . . . it’s awe-inspiring and an important part of the circle of life.”