In and around Pittsburgh, the American bird – the bald eagle – is back |
I became an environmentalist in my grandfather’s shadow in the mid-1960s. I was about 4, holding his hand in his garden in Swisshelm Park, peering through the chain link fence of a cliff overlooking the dull orange Monongahela River.
“It stinks like rotten eggs, doesn’t it, Catbird?” he said. My dad’s dad was the only one who called me that, and when I was 4 I felt a special bond between us every time he said it. âIf the river wasn’t like this, we’d see all kinds of birds on this hill, but oh, play the fiddle. “
Our day hikes on the Frick Park trails a few years later were more successful. An amateur photographer, he filled his backpack with photo equipment and I filled mine with field guides of North American birds, plants, trees, mushrooms and animal tracks. While he set up his camera and lights on tripods, my job was to identify the subject and describe its scope and characteristics. Weeks later, we had bored the family with our outdoor slideshows.
But our most exciting wildlife adventures have been on camping trips. After installing a home base for his pop-up trailer, we followed the trails that crisscrossed national and private parks. Quietly, taking care to avoid breaking sticks with every step, we walked and stopped, walked and stopped, slowly raising our binoculars when we saw a squirrel, songbird, or white-tailed deer.
We were in Crawford County, exploring a bushy shore at Pymatuning Reservoir, when it pointed to the sky.
âLook, Catbird. It’s a bald eagle.
I remember the size, so much larger than the birds I knew, black feathers on a bulky frame and a majestic white head. Almost defying gravity, motionless, he slowly spun close enough that I could make out his angry eyebrows and I wondered why he was so mad.
âIt is our national bird, the symbol of the United States. Before, there were a lot of them, âsaid grandfather. “They mostly eat fish, and we would probably see some at home if the fish could live in this foul-smelling water.”
Forty years later, Grandpa was long gone, but I thought of him and our Pymatuning eagle when a Pennsylvania game ranger informed me that a pair of bald eagles had been discovered in nesting on private property above the Ohio River near Crescent. As an environmentalist, I understood that since the mills and mines had closed and raw sewage was no longer flowing into the rivers of Pittsburgh, the water could now support the life of insects and a variety of small Pisces. The fish had grown in size and numbers enough to feed the bald eagles in Allegheny County for the first time in about 100 years. As a result of a historic statewide reintroduction program, the number of bald eagle nests in Pennsylvania increased from three in 1983 to more than 100. The eagles had exceeded their conservation status and were no longer there. no longer considered endangered or threatened in the state.
In 2013, I reported even better news. A young pair of bald eagles forcibly evicted two red-tailed hawks from their long-standing nest in a tree rooted in a cliff overlooking the Allegheny River in Harmar. Another couple had moved to the Pittsburgh community of Hays, nesting on a steep hill overlooking the Monongahela River, a few miles downstream from the Swisshelm Park yard where I had taken my first steps as an environmentalist. In recent years, other bald eagles have settled near Glassport and North Park.
With the consent of the Game Commission, Audubon and the Monroeville company PixCams were the first in the region to implement discreet wildlife cameras that give anyone with an internet connection high-resolution live video of the daily life of bald eagle families. Since 2014, the Hays site has been visited by millions of eagle watchers around the world.
âPeople across the country and around the world continue to be excited about the Hays bald eagle camera,â said Rachel Handel, spokesperson for the Western Pennsylvania Audubon Society. âWatching the birds go from restoring nests to laying eggs and rearing the young creates a bond between the onlookers and the birds. “
Pennsylvania’s temperate longitude provides a year-round home for non-migrating eagles. The Hays couple were seen plucking pigeons on an ice-covered Monongahela River. The state is at the northern end of the winter migration areas of bald eagles that breed in Canada. Some 200 eagles overwinter at Delaware Water Gap in Monroe County. It is not known why each spring hundreds of bald eagles flock to the skies above Lake Tionesta in Forest County.
âA few years ago eagles in Pennsylvania were a novelty,â said Seth Mesoras, an education officer for the Game Commission. âToday, with 300 breeding pairs in the state – more than that now – it’s no surprise to see eagles. But people still love to see them. There’s something about them. It is. a special bird.
As if inviting an audience, a pair of bald eagles chased the ospreys from their nests at Lake Wilhelm, Mercer County, and settled in a wetland from the entrance to the park. Goddard State. Eagle nests are now common along the Susquehanna River. The shore of Lake Erie and Lake Raystown in Huntingdon County have become popular destinations for eagle-watchers.
Across Pennsylvania, eagle tourism dollars are spent by hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and day trippers in areas surrounding easy-to-see nests and natural bald eagle gathering sites. On weekends in the spring and summer, groups of eagle watchers gather at Moraine State Park (Butler County), Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (Lebanon, Lancaster ), John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Philadelphia, Delaware), Glendale Lake in Prince Gallitzin State Park. (Cambria) and many other eagle hot spots.
Bald eagles still hover over the shore of Pymatuning State Park, where my grandfather pointed up and said, “Look, Catbird.”
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