By Gaen Murphree
If you heard a loon’s wild cry, were lucky enough to spot a bald eagle nest 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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One important way for Vermonters to contribute to the resurgence of these magnificent species is keeping a respectful distance during nesting season.
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]
Photo by Tom Rogers