When the phone rings and the caller on the other end of the line is excitedly relaying an unusual wildlife observation, I do my best to join the adrenaline rush brought on by a possible rare or uncommon sighting.
While some may downplay a turkey vulture observation or what turns out to be a nonnative chukar partridge, there's just something about the excitement of the unexpected.
Not so long ago, bald eagles generated those types of calls where the person at the other end provided details with excitement almost comparable to their child scoring the winning run in a baseball game.
Today, I rarely get contacted by someone who starts the conversation with "You'll never believe it, but I just saw a bald eagle!"
And really, that's a good thing. Bald eagles have recovered from
endangered status to the point where sightings are common in much of
North Dakota, and therefore the novelty of such sightings has diminished
Beyond the frequency of citizen sightings, the number of bald eagles in North Dakota has literally broken records. During the annual midwinter bald eagle survey conducted along the Missouri River from Bismarck to the Garrison Dam, biologists counted 108 bald eagles, breaking the previous best of 85 in 2008.
"The mild winter kept the river open and a held lot of waterfowl in the area," said Patrick T. Isakson, conservation biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Open water and available prey are significant factors in the number of eagles still in North Dakota in early January, Isakson said. In 2011, for example, 44 eagles were counted.
The aerial survey is part of a nationwide effort to try to get an estimate of the number of bald eagles wintering in the lower 48 states. All survey routes across the country are run at the same time to avoid counting birds twice.
While Game and Fish Department biologists no longer request reports on individual bald eagle sightings, they are keeping tabs on eagle nests in the state. As such, anyone who knows of a bald eagle nest in the state is encouraged to report the nest location to the Game and Fish Department.
Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sandra Johnson, Game and Fish conservation biologist, emphasizes that the department is looking for nest locations, not eagle sightings. "April is the best time to see an eagle nest," she said. "The eagles are actively incubating eggs and it may become difficult later in spring to see the nest because of the leaves beginning to grow on trees."
Johnson said it is easy to distinguish an eagle nest because of its enormous size. "They stand out because of the large tree and the size of the nest," she said.
Eagle nests are now found statewide, but they are more prevalent east of the Missouri River. "Historically, eagle nests were found along the Missouri River," Johnson added, "but over the past decade they have increased significantly in the Red River Valley, and have been observed in many parts of the state along streams and mid- to large-sized lakes, and even in unique areas such as shelterbelts surrounded by cropland."
Johnson asks observers to stay a safe distance away from a nest. "It is important not to approach the nest as foot traffic may disturb the bird, likely causing the eagle to leave her eggs unattended," she said.
Nest observations should be reported to Johnson at (701) 328-6382, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: email@example.com