Report: Eagle population soaring in Florida

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Report: Eagle population soaring in Florida

Report: Eagle population soaring in Florida

Naples News Report: Eagle population soaring in Florida
CHAD GILLIS, CGILLIS@NEWS-PRESS.COM Published 11:50 a.m. ET Dec. 20, 2017 | Updated 2:55 p.m. ET Dec. 21, 2017

Bald eagle populations being monitored in most of Florida show the national symbol is thriving but also faces threats as more of the Sunshine State is developed.

A report released recently by Florida Audubon, called Eagle Watch, says eaglets here are doing well based on sheer numbers but that they're losing natural nesting habitat.

"We seem to be on target and the population is stable at this point, but they're having to adapt to people," said program director Shawnlei Breeding. "More and more are nesting in developed areas, and some eagles are nesting quite close to each other."

Bald eagles are territorial and typically don't nest near other eagles.

In Florida they prefer pine trees, most of which are on dry ground. Dry ground is mostly where we build in Florida, so much of their habitat has become our habitat.

The Audubon report found that, out of nearly 600 nests studied across the state, that eaglets are leaving the nest at a rate of 94 percent, with each nest producing an average of 1.3 chicks.

There are an estimated 1,500 pairs of breeding eagles in Florida. That's No. 2 in the nation, behind only Alaska.

Breeding said this year's numbers looked good when compared to bald eagle recovery plans and population counts in recent years.

Twenty-six nestlings were monitored in Lee County during the 2016-17 nesting season with 20 nestlings watched in Collier County. All the nestlings in Lee successfully fledged while 13 of the eaglets in Collier did the same.

"That is a good percentage, and that’s based on the data we’re collecting," she said. "That is based on eagles that we watched and there may be some errors in the data because there could be chicks that hatched but didn’t fledge that we didn’t know about."

It's still too early to tell how Hurricane Irma will impact this breeding season, but the massive storm destroyed an estimated 25 percent of bald eagle nests, according to the report.

Another 10 percent of nests were damaged and needed repairs.

That was the case with local celebrity eagles Harriet and M15, a mating pair whose lives are streamed to millions around the world through a series of wildlife cameras.

Harriet and M15 rebuilt their nest in time for the current nesting season, and Breeding said she expects that other eagles were able to fix theirs as well.

"It did hit at the time that a lot of eagles were coming back, but it hit early enough that the birds that came back and found that their nest was gone were able to rebuild," Breeding said. "But we are seeing a little bit of movement in locations if their tree went down, and some of them are out there kung fu fighting over nesting territory."

Jim Beever, a planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, monitored eagles for the state years ago.

He read the Audubon report and said although there are gaps in the data (mostly counties in the panhandle) the eagle snapshot is on par with other eagle monitoring programs he's seen.

"I think it’s probably true based on this and coming from other agencies that the eagle population in Florida is stable," Beever said.

So what makes Florida such a good place for bald eagles?

"For one thing we have so much coast," Beever said. "People need to remember bald eagles are of the sea eagle group and fish are really a big part of their natural diet. They’ll eat other things but they’re definitely honing in on fish, particularly for breeding."

Beever says he stays 1,500 feet away from a nest when observing in the wild.

He mentioned Harriet and M15 as a good pair to watch because they don't seem disturbed by people who watch from a nearby church parking lot, which is several hundred feet from the nest tree.

"The best way for people to observe eagles is to go to one of the places like the eagle nest off Bayshore," Beever said. "That’s a nice place to go see eagles and I’ve been there and people have their big scopes up and they share them, so it’s a good place to go."

Breeding said the bird's popularity is due to a variety of characteristics.

"They're a symbol of hope for me," she said. "You look at all the environmental damage out there, but here is a bird that was on the brink of extinction and has come back. Other people see how powerful they are, and they’re beautiful."

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