DNR Survey Shows Eagle Nesting Still Strong in State (2024)

Annual surveys by the state Department of Natural Resources rated nest success for the national bird above average in most areas checked, according to survey leader Dr. Bob Sargent.

“The findings were even better than last year’s good results,” Sargent said. “That’s most encouraging when you consider the beating that nesting coastal eagle took in 2022 because of an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza.”

Although the survey flights covered less territory than the once-every-five-years statewide survey in 2022, they still recorded 145 nest territories. Of those, 116 were successful, fledging 178 eagles.

Last year, Sargent documented 198 nest territories, 150 successful nests and 232 eagles fledged. But that survey included southwest Georgia – a massive area with nearly 100 nests – while this year’s pivoted to the northern half of the state, where nest density is lower. For context, Sargent said the 2024 averages for young fledged per nest and occupied nest territory matched the state’s long-term averages.

Accounting for eagle nests not monitored, the totals suggest Georgia has maintained over 200 nest territories a year since 2015, while the number of eagles nesting here has continued to increase – if at a slower rate in recent years. Still, only 25 years ago the state had no more than about 50 nest territories, Sargent said.

DNR monitors eagle nesting by helicopter twice a year, splitting the state into five sections for surveys. The coast, epicenter of eagle nesting in Georgia, is surveyed annually. The other areas are checked at least every other year. Flights in January and February mark nests in use. Follow-ups in March and April help gauge how the nests fared.

The 2024 survey included north/northwest Georgia – generally north of Atlanta from Interstate 85 east of the city and from Interstate 20 west of it – the coastal counties and barrier islands; a triangular swath of northeast Georgia framed by Athens, Dublin and reservoirs in the Augusta area; and several reservoirs between Atlanta and Macon.

Nest success rates varied from an average of 71 percent in north/northwest Georgia to an above-average 82 percent on the coast and in central and northeast Georgia. The latter survey covered a lot of ground and water, ranging from reservoirs between Macon and Atlanta east to the Oconee River watershed and along the large Savannah River reservoirs north of Augusta.

On the coast, the 83 nest territories marked the second straight year that total significantly exceeded the average. The 82 percent nest success rate was also up from 73 percent last year, with an average of 1.5 young fledged per nest. The total of 99 eaglets fledged from 68 successful nests topped last year’s 89 fledglings and far surpassed the 50 eaglets fledged from only 34 successful nests in 2022, the year of the avian influenza outbreak.

Sargent saw dead eaglets in two nests, but at least one of those was “clearly the result of predation.” That’s not unusual, he added: “Great horned owls, raccoons and a few other predators kill eaglets.”

The survey documented 21 nest territories in north/northwest Georgia. Territories in this area are scarce because there are fewer big reservoirs and other large water bodies, Sargent said. The 15 successful territories fledged 28 eagles. In central and northeast Georgia, of 33 occupied nest territories found, 27 fledged eagles, for 42 fledglings in all. Eagles in this region tend to establish territories along large, broad rivers and the reservoirs they feed, but some pairs nest near clusters of farm ponds.

The bald eagle has rebounded in Georgia and across the species’ range. Factors fueling that recovery include a U.S. ban on DDT use in 1972, habitat improvements after enactment of the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts, protection through the Endangered Species Act, increased public awareness, restoration of local populations through release programs, and forest regrowth.

Following a steep decline in the eagle population in Georgia, the state went from no known successful nests during most of the 1970s to one in 1981, 48 by the turn of the century and more than 200 today.
The public is encouraged to report eagle nests the form available via https://georgiawildlife.com/bald-eagle, (478) 994-1438 or bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov. Such reports typically lead to the discovery of 10-15 new nests a year. (Tip: Osprey nests are sometimes confused with eagles. Learn more at https://georgiawildlife.com/bald-eagle.)

DNR works with landowners to help protect bald eagle nests on private property. Although delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2007, eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and state law. In Georgia, the species is classified as threatened.

The surveys of these birds are part of DNR Wildlife Conservation Section’s mission to conserve nongame wildlife – native animals not legally hunted or fished for – and native plants and natural habitats.

The conservation of bald eagles is supported in part by people who buy an eagle or monarch license plate or renew these or the older hummingbird designs. The tags cost only $25 more than a standard license plate and $19 of each purchase and $20 of each annual renewal goes to help conserve eagles and hundreds of other Georgia plant and animal species listed as species of conservation concern.

EAGLE NESTING IN GEORGIA/AT A GLANCE

  • Occupied bald eagle nest territories: 145*
  • Successful nests: 116
  • Young fledged: 178 (1.53/nest)
  • New nests (first time surveyed): 21
  • Overall nest success rate: 80%
  • By region:
    oCoast: 83 occupied nests; 68 successful; 99 young fledged; nine new nests
    oNorth/northwest: 21 occupied; 15 successful; 28 young fledged; five new nests
    oNortheast-central: 33 occupied; 27 successful; 42 young fledged; seven new nests
    oNests not monitored by flights: eight occupied; six successful; nine young fledged; none were new

*In areas surveyed (not statewide)
SOURCE: Georgia DNR

HOW THE SURVEY WORKS

DNR began monitoring bald eagle nesting in Georgia in the 1980s. The Wildlife Conservation Section now checks nests by helicopter in January-February and again in March-April. Following 2017, the statewide survey was scaled back. From 2018-2020, about 50-70 percent of Georgia was surveyed annually. Because of COVID, only the coastal counties were flown in 2021. In 2022, the entire state was surveyed again. In the last two years, monitoring has returned to the regional approach.

Since 2017, the survey has been split into five regions: the six coastal counties, southwest Georgia, east/northeast (most of the area between Interstates 16 and 85 east of Atlanta and Macon), north/northwest and southeast (bounded by interstates 75 and 16 and west of the coastal counties). Coastal counties, where about a third of nest territories are found, are surveyed annually. Other sections are checked in an every-other-year rotation. The southeast area has the fewest nests and is mostly monitored by volunteers on foot. In 2023 and 2024, DNR added a survey route covering an area basically tracing an inverted triangle from Atlanta (northwest corner) to Athens (northeast corner) to Macon.

Flights usually involve two rounds. The first, started between January’s second and fourth week, focuses on finding active nests. An active nest is one with eggs, eaglets (rare in Georgia in January except on the coast), an adult eagle in an incubating posture or evidence eagles have been prepping it for use. The second round of flights, from mid-March to early April, gauges the reproductive outcome of those nests and checks reports of new ones. By late winter, most nests have eaglets 4-14 weeks old or they are empty because the nest failed or, in a few cases, the eaglets fledged.

Nest cycles: DNR survey leader Dr. Bob Sargent said there is a marked latitudinal gradient for the timing of the nest cycle. Eagles on the coast nest and fledge young earlier than those in middle Georgia and much earlier than those nesting around mountain reservoirs. As with all birds, the causes of nests failing vary. They include severe weather, the death of one or both parents, insufficient food available to rear the young and predation of eggs or the young by raccoons, great horned owls and other wildlife.

Aviation aid: By the end of this year’s surveys, Sargent and DNR pilots Capt. Jaye Bridwell, Lt. Ryan Buller and Lt. Sam Miller had seen nearly 190 nests from Dade to Richmond to Camden counties. “Our pilots are extraordinarily skilled and always eager to support these surveys,” Sargent said. “They take great pride in discovering new nests, and often needle me in a good-natured way when they spot them before I do!”

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DNR Survey Shows Eagle Nesting Still Strong in State (2024)
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