Eagles, falcons, loons still on the rise across the state and countywide
ADDISON COUNTY — If you heard a loon’s wild yodel, were lucky enough to spot one of Addison County’s three bald eagle nests or watched a peregrine falcon on the wing this past summer, you shared in the continued resurgence of three of the state’s most charismatic winged species.
Bald eagles, peregrine falcons and common loons — once endangered in the Green Mountain State — hatched chicks in record numbers in 2016, according to state wildlife experts.
Bald eagles fledged 32 chicks statewide, nearly a 20 percent increase from the record 26 in 2013. Peregrine falcons: at least 81 chicks, surpassing the previous record of 67 in 2015. Common loons: 80 chicks, surpassing the 2009 record of 74. Vermont Fish and Wildlife partners with Audubon Vermont and with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies` in monitoring these birds.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist John Buck, who directs the recovery efforts for all threatened and endangered bird species in Vermont, says those numbers are something to celebrate.
“Having that number of nests in the state says that we as Vermonters have done a good job of getting these species back here,” he said. “What is more to celebrate is that we’re able to keep them here. That’s the sign of success.”
The statewide success was reflected in Addison County. Here the number of nesting pairs was up for bald eagles and loons, though the number of chicks overall held steady with recent years. The county’s six cliff sites for peregrine falcons produced double the chicks hatched last year.
In Vermont as across the nation, bald eagles were driven to the brink of extinction. By 1963 only 487 nesting pairs remained in the contiguous United States. The pesticide DDT, introduced in the 1940s, looked to be the final nail in the coffin of a species already decimated by loss of habitat, polluted water and human predation (the birds were seen as threats to domestic livestock and were shot and poisoned as pests).
Recovery began with the passage of federal laws such as the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts and the banning of DDT. In Vermont, by the mid-20th century the state’s forests had begun to return.
By 1995 bald eagles were downlisted from endangered to threatened at the federal level. By 2007, bald eagles were delisted entirely. In Vermont, bald eagles remain on the state’s endangered species list.
But the resurgence of eagles since the mid-2000s leaves state experts hopeful that if recovery continues at current rates, eagles could be downlisted or perhaps taken off the state’s threatened and endangered list entirely within five years, said Buck.
Addison County is central to the Vermont bald eagle recovery story. When state biologists began the bald eagle reintroduction program in 2004, Addison’s Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area was chosen as the sole site for hand raising eaglets brought from Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia.
“Dead Creek is perfect (eagle habitat),” said Buck. “Lake Champlain is perfect. Otter Creek is perfect. All of our major rivers are good eagle habitat.”
Buck described eagles as liking to nest in big sturdy trees on the forest edge, surrounded by other big sturdy trees, but liking to hunt over open ground.
“They’re more scavengers than predators,” he said. “A big dead carp on the side of Dead Creek would be a perfect eagle meal or a dead deer that died in the woods of starvation. That’s classic eagle food.”
At Dead Creek, volunteers constructed special eagle “nests” on top of old telephone poles and the birds were hand fed, but in such a way as to prevent their imprinting on humans. The process is known as “hacking.”
From 2004 to 2006, 29 individuals were raised and released at Dead Creek Wildlife Area. Ironically, said Buck, to the best of the department’s knowledge those former chicks have chosen to nest in nearby states, not in Vermont. The resurgence of the state’s eagle population has come from eagles who’ve come from the wild populations in surrounding states.
Vermont had a single nesting pair in 2002, then went to zero in 2003 and 2004, and then to two nesting pairs in 2005. The state its got its first chick in 2008. In 2016, 21 nesting pairs statewide produced 32 chicks.
Bald eagles built their first nest in Addison County in 2010 and that nest produced one chick. Since 2012, Addison County has typically hosted two nesting pairs, who’ve produced around four chicks each season. 2015 saw a dip to one nesting pair that produced two chicks and one territorial pair (birds that scope out a site together but don’t nest). This year Addison County numbers rose to three nesting pairs and one territorial pair. But despite this boost in adults, the county tallied just four chicks.
Peregrine falcons in Vermont “reached a new post-DDT record of at least 51 territorial pairs and fledged a new record of at least 81 chicks in 2016,” according to Margaret Fowle, conservation biologist with the Audubon Vermont Peregrine Falcon Recovery Program.
Peregrine falcons came off the national endangered species list in 1999 and off the Vermont list in 2005. Loons came off the Vermont endangered list in 2005. Buck emphasized, however, that it’s important to keep monitoring the health of these species, given both their environmental sensitivity and the high level of public concern.
In Addison County, chick numbers doubled from 2015 to 2016. In 2015, nesting pairs at Bristol Cliffs and at Elephant Mountain in Bristol produced five chicks. Territorial pairs checked out Deer Leap in Bristol, Rattlesnake Point in Salisbury and Snake Mountain in Addison, but didn’t nest. A nest on Mt. Horrid in Goshen failed.
This year nesting pairs at Bristol Cliffs and Deer Leap fledged two chicks each, and nesting pairs at Elephant Mountain and Mount Horrid fledged three chicks each, for a whopping Addison County total of 10 chicks.
A territorial pair checked out Snake Mountain, and a nest failed on Rattlesnake Cliffs. Fowle noted that Rattlesnake Cliffs continues to have a low success rate, with no chicks in the last six years and only 18 in the 14 years before that.
Goshen’s Sugar Hill Reservoir was the site of one of Vermont’s seven first-time loon nests (post-recovery).
Vermont Center for Ecostudies biologist Eric Hanson explained that loons tend to do better when there is a group of lakes not too far apart, as is the case with Lake Dunmore, Silver Lake and Goshen Dam reservoir. And thus there’s a good chance that the new nesting pair on Sugar Hill Reservoir could be offspring from Lake Dunmore, where there’ve been chicks since 2007.
Statewide loons set what Hanson described as “another modern day nesting record in 2016.” This year 93 nesting pairs produced 80 surviving chicks. An additional 24 territorial pairs scoped out Vermont sites for a place to raise their young but did not nest.
In Addison County, the new nest at Sugar Hill Reservoir produced one chick. A pair of loons nested at Lake Dunmore but the nest failed. And a nesting pair at Silver Lake successfully produced one chick after their initial clutch failed. Hanson said that eggs from the first nest disappeared, so they could have been taken by predators. He also noted that “human activity could have played a role in keeping birds off the nest as the nest was not far from a remote campsite and the trail.”
The two surviving chicks in 2016 put this year on par with 2015. Last year (2015) a nesting pair at Silver Lake produced one chick, loons scoped out Sugar Hill but did not nest, and a nest on Lake Dunmore produced two chicks but one was killed by a passing boat.
Over the past 15 years, the number of adult loons in Vermont has risen from 135 tallied in 2001 to 301 tallied in 2014 and 2016.
One important way for Vermonters to contribute to the resurgence of these magnificent species is keeping a respectful distance during nesting season.
“We had many close calls with disturbance to the Sugar Hill Reservoir nest as people at first paddled right up to the nest without thinking it could cause a problem,” Hanson said. “We put out nest warning signs within a few days of discovering the nest but many people continued to ignore the floating signs. It’s a steep learning curve for people to learn to give loons their space when nesting. Dunmore was the same situation a few years ago as people learned what was appropriate and not.”
Similarly, for example, wildlife experts believe that the poor performance at Rattlesnake Cliffs may be due to curious hikers and climbers trespassing on restricted areas during the sensitive nesting season.
At the same time, experts emphasized how much there is to celebrate in the three species’ continued resurgence.
Habitat preservation, Buck emphasized, is key to preserving wild Vermont, but so is just taking the time to get out and enjoy it.
“As we become more and more suburbanized and that becomes the norm and the expectation, how do we maintain a sensitivity to the wild things?” Buck pondered, and then answered.
“Go look for peregrines from a distance with your spotting scope, and if you don’t see peregrines enjoy the turkey vultures that you might have seen that day and all the other birds that you might see and all the other things that you might see that day. Observe the colors and the smells and the behaviors of the plants and the animals that you’re going to encounter. And incite a certain curiosity about what you see out there so that you can become more fluent with the language of nature.
“We’re all living on this planet.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].