January 27, 2007

Bald Eagle Spotted Locally: Reported Sightings of Bald Eagle Are a First for Rockwall County

By Ian McCann, The Dallas Morning News

Jan. 27--The eagle has landed at Lake Ray Hubbard.

And not just any eagle. At least two Rockwall County residents this month have spotted and photographed a bald eagle, the American icon that was also once the poster animal for the effects of pollution on wildlife.

Omar Bocanegra, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Arlington, said his agency has had no previous reports of bald eagle sightings at Ray Hubbard or in Rockwall County. And Texas Parks and Wildlife Capt. Garry Collins, the game warden who oversees the area including the lake, said no previous local sightings had been reported to his agency either.

But, Mr. Bocanegra said, it's not unheard of to spot one of the birds as it spends the winter in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, especially as their populations have increased.

"They've made a big comeback," Mr. Bocanegra said. "From the phone calls I get about endangered species, the most common ones are bald eagle sightings."

He did say, however, that it was unusual for residents to get such high-quality, close-up pictures of bald eagles in the area.

The more recent of the two Rockwall County sightings occurred Jan. 15. David Crutchfield and his 9-year-old twin boys were getting ready to go to the movies when he looked out toward the lake from his home in the gated Chandlers Landing community of Rockwall.

"This big bird flashed by the window," Mr. Crutchfield said. "Then I see this white head, and I got my camera."

He said that his family had seen ospreys and hawks before but that the bird that morning was larger and easily recognizable as a bald eagle.

As Mr. Crutchfield clicked off photos, the bird hovered over the lake in the steady wind and, a short time later, swooped down and picked up a small bird in its talons. Soon after, Mr. Crutchfield and his sons, John and Will, spotted the eagle perched in a tree and eating the bird, which Mr. Crutchfield said looked like a coot.

The bird eventually took note of passers-by, collected what remained of his dinner and flew away.

A week or so earlier, Heath resident Carl McClung photographed a bald eagle as it perched in a pecan tree in his back yard. His 10-year-old daughter, Kylie, saw it first, and they identified it by the white head and tail feathers.

That the species has enjoyed a resurgence is clear from state and national figures.

In 1971, Texas Parks and Wildlife knew of just seven active nests in the state, but by 2003 the number had risen to 117.

Mr. Bocanegra said the eagles are most often found in East Texas, where they nest for most of the year before migrating north for the summer. They're drawn to the large trees, which support their heavy nests, and lakes where they dine on fish and small waterfowl. Those in the Dallas area, he said, have most likely migrated here from the north for the winter.

Nationally, numbers have increased from about 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in the early 1960s to more than 7,000 today, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eagle populations were thinned by hunting in the 1800s, and Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940. Still, their numbers continued to decline because of contamination from the pesticide DDT and lead poisoning. They were listed as endangered in most states, DDT use was restricted, and the birds' numbers began to increase until their status was upgraded from endangered to threatened in 1995.

They've recovered so well that federal officials are considering removing bald eagles from the threatened species list as well. Even if the bald eagle is removed from the list, it will be protected by other federal laws.

Although bald eagles are more common than they once were, seeing one is still special, Mr. Bocanegra said, primarily because they're a national symbol.

"They're a charismatic bird," he said. "I've spoken to several people who have seen bald eagles around, and people always remember the first time they see one."

Rockwall-Rowlett Neighbors editor Dawn Redig contributed to this report.


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