SALEM – A pair of bald eagles that has nested at Montauk State Park for more than a decade, with varying success, produced two chicks this year.
By late spring, the dark brown eaglets were nearly as big as their parents, and were hopping from limb to limb near the nest, testing their wings.
The immature eagles will remain a mottled brown until approaching their fifth year, when they gain the distinctive white head and tail feathers of an adult. Like their parents, they most likely will make their permanent home in the Current River valley.
"Our eagles don't migrate," said Stephen Bost, naturalist at Montauk. "They have no reason to leave. We have a trout hatchery, so there's a wealth of fish for them. They have ice-free water year round, so the fish are available all year. It's more of a protected setting."
Although bald eagles have nested in other state parks in recent years, Montauk's eagles are among the most conspicuous, as they fly and feed within the park. On a recent morning, visitors to the park's springs found the two on one of the sides of the spring branch, having what sounded like a raucous argument.
Eagles migrate from northern climates in search of open water and access to fish in winter. Missouri is among the leaders in numbers of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
During the 2013 annual winter eagle count, 2,693 eagles were recorded in the state. The eagles begin migrating back north in late February, although some remain year-round as "resident" eagles.
The Audubon Society of Missouri maintains an electronic checklist database at mobirds.org where the public can enter bird observations from Missouri's state parks and conservation areas. The state parks site recorded bald eagle sightings at 51 of the 87 state parks and historic sites, most of them coming during the winter.
But bald eagles also have been spotted at parks in May and June, when they would be breeding. However, there have not been any confirmed reports of active nests at parks other than Montauk.
"We have reports this spring of eagles that could be nesting because they are present at times beyond winter dates, but no sightings of nests," said Edge Wade, an Audubon member from Columbia who helped set up the data collecting system.
The eagles at Montauk first were observed building a nest in a ridge-top pine in the park in the winter of 1999. But in March of 2000, they abandoned their nest and eggs.
For the next several years, the same scenario usually played out – the eagles would abandon the nest. Over a decade of nesting, the eagles produced just six chicks.
Stephen Bost, the park naturalist, had a theory on what was happening. The abandonment of the nest coincided with the commotion of the opening of trout season on March 1, when some 2,000 anglers jammed the park.
Page 2 of 2 - In February of 2010, Bost began a regimen to get the eagles accustomed to the hubbub, including banging on a tractor blade in the valley below the nest once or twice in the morning in the weeks before the trout opener.
The effort to acclimate the birds appears to have worked.
The eagles had two chicks in 2010, three in 2011 and three in 2012. The two in 2013 make 10 chicks in the last four years.
"We actually see them teaching their eaglets how to hunt," Bost said. "What a great thing to have at the park."
Nesting bald eagles were common in Missouri in the early 1800s. By 1890, they were nearly eliminated in Missouri as nesters as a result of habitat loss and indiscriminate shooting.
Missouri's eagles already were gone by the mid-1900s, when the pesticide DDT was reducing hatching success in other parts of the country.
Janet Haslerig is an avian ecologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation who tracks reports of active bald eagle nests throughout the state.
She said the trends have been positive since a re-introduction program in 1981 through 1990, which released 74 young eagles bred in captivity at two locations in the state.
"Numbers are definitely going up," Haslerig said. "It appears to be stable and growing. Even the wintering populations are increasing."
In 2001, the state had an estimated 76 nesting pairs, and that grew to 123 by 2006. An aerial and ground survey in 2011 found 280 nests, with 165 of those active. Of Missouri's 114 counties, active nests were recorded in 70 counties.
"We ask that the public report any active nests in which adults are on the nest or chicks or fledglings are observed," she said. "Be as specific as possible on the location and directions. A map showing the location and a photo, if possible, are useful."
Reports of active nests should be sent to the local conservation office.
Bald eagles were declared endangered in 1978. Because of the dramatic recovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service de-listed bald eagles from the Endangered Species Act in 2007.
However, bald eagles remain federally protected with fines of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to a year for people convicted of killing one. It is also illegal to possess an eagle, alive or dead, or any eagle parts or products without a permit.
Haslerig said the mission of her job is to ensure the success continues. If declines are detected, she said, efforts will be considered to expand monitoring, pursue additional research and possibly resume protected status under federal and state laws.
For more information, visit mostateparks.com.