N.H. Audubon eagle survey tallies 90 bald eagles, sets new record

Last modified: Tuesday, February 10, 2015
For the second straight year, the New Hampshire Audubon Society’s annual bald eagle survey has set a new record.

The Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey, a one-day statewide count taken in early January, tallied 90 bald eagles. This is a 34 percent increase over last year, when volunteers counted 67 eagles. The 2015 survey shows the majestic birds are continuing a resurgence after decades of near-extinction in New Hampshire. The number of eagles recorded by the survey has doubled every 10 years, from 12 eagles in 1984 to 55 in 2005. While the growth is a good sign for the state’s environment, experts are looking to see the population stabilize.

“The fact is bald eagles have been given the time and the habitat to recover from a population low,” said Chris Martin, a senior wildlife biologist with the Audubon.

A few factors likely contributed to the huge numbers, he said. First, the eagles likely flocked to milder southern parts of the state during the extreme cold that preceded the survey. Also, visibility was good on the day of the survey, and a record 102 volunteers participated.

“Underlying this number is a definite increasing trend,” Martin said.

The official count day is during a two-week count period between Jan. 1 and Jan. 15, during which 110 bald eagles were spotted.

These results would have been hard to imagine even 20 years ago, said Carol Foss, a senior adviser for science and policy at the Audubon who helped organize the first surveys in the early 1980s.

“People thought we were nuts for even going out and looking for them,” Foss said. “I can remember seeing three at Great Bay and it being really exciting.”

The bald eagle population had nearly bottomed out when conservationists began tracking eagle populations in 1981. The widespread use of DDT, a common pesticide, and lack of protection were two major reasons the eagle’s population dropped across the country. The population increase in the region has been driven by the banning of DDT and the protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2007, bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. A year later, the state Fish and Game Department upgraded the eagle’s status from endangered to threatened.

Across the Northeast, biologists are looking for signs that the population is steadying, rather than increasing.

“At some point there is a time when the number is too big,” Martin said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re probably heading in that direction.”

Given their perch near the top of the food chain, bald eagles can give biologists a good idea of the health of the surrounding environment. If their food supply is contaminated, it could hint at a broader issue.

“When we’ve got a healthy, robust population, it gives us some evidence that our environment is healthy and that we’ve done something to leave enough habitat,” Martin said.

Of the number of eagles counted, 29 were spotted in the Merrimack River watershed. Forty-eight were adults, 41 were roughly 4 years old or younger and one was of an undetermined age. A record 102 volunteer observers participated in the survey, which is coordinated in partnership with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program and the United States Geological Survey.

To learn more about the Audubon’s Bald Eagle Monitoring and Management program or to support the bald eagle’s continued recovery, visit nhaudubon.org.

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)