Eagles settle in at High Rock

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 17, 2011

By Karissa Minn
BADIN — A new aerial survey shows that bald eagles are thriving at the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project, according to representatives with Alcoa Power Generating Inc.
A March survey identified seven active bald eagles nests at the Yadkin Project — three at High Rock Lake, two at Tuckertown and one each at Falls and Badin Lake.
This is the largest number of active nests spotted since Alcoa began conducting annual surveys in 2001.
The survey also found seven bald eagle chicks and one egg that has yet to hatch. During the past 10 years, 19 different bald eagle nests have been spotted along the reservoirs, producing nearly 50 chicks.
Alcoa representatives say the company has been carefully cultivating bald eagle habitats at the Yadkin Project since 1995.
“The kind of numbers we saw this year — it’s very encouraging,” said Marshall Olson, Alcoa’s environmental and natural resources manager in Badin. “We’re providing what the eagles need, and they’re there.”
Tracking Bald Eagles
Bald eagles spent 40 years on the list of threatened and endangered species until being removed in 2007.
The birds were first spotted in the Yadkin region in the mid-1990s when they migrated south to avoid the harsh winter weather.
During the development of the Shoreline Management Plan, Alcoa identified bald eagle habitats as critical habitat and established conservation zones that warranted special protection. Generally, no development is allowed in the conservation zones.
For the past decade, the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary has conducted two annual bald eagle surveys of the Yadkin Project at Alcoa’s request.
Each spring, a small plane flies over 38 miles of shoreline searching for bald eagle nests. Fuzzzo Shermer, a pilot with Dominion Aviation, flies at an altitude of 300 feet for the first survey. The second survey takes the plane down nearly to the treetops.
Bryan Watts, director of the center, said the two surveys are meant to give an idea of the bald eagle population and the productivity of its breeding pairs.
“In late February through March, we’re looking for new nest structures, and we’re checking nests that we already know about for condition and activity,” Watts said. “Then, we come back in April through mid-May and count the chicks in the nests.”
The nests may be as large as a Volkswagen Beetle and typically weigh more than one ton. Bald eagle nests are typically built atop trees that tower over the forest and are used for several years.
An average eagle nest measures approximately 5 to 6 feet in diameter and 3 to 4 feet deep. The largest eagle nest ever recorded measured 20 feet deep and 10 feet wide and weighed almost 3 tons.
Watts said he found one breeding pair in 2001 compared to an estimated 10 this year, which shows that the bald eagle population at the Yadkin Project is recovering.
“Things are really looking good in terms of the fish-eating birds on those reservoirs,” he said. “All these populations are increasing, and they all seem to be healthy and productive.”
Alcoa maintains a shoreline management plan for the Yadkin Project that provides special environmental protections within 100 feet of the reservoir shoreline and prohibits development in conservation zones. Olson said this is designed to protect and preserve wildlife habitats.
“Through our shoreline management plan, we have improved the habitat through the years,” Olson said. “There’s quite a bit of development out there, but we’re protecting our property around these lakes, so consequently it’s providing these havens.“
He said the company protects trees, especially super-canopy trees, not only on its own property but on others nearby through collaborative efforts.
Alcoa also has partnered with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission by sharing the survey data to help improve bald eagle habitats around the state.
Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said it is “fantastic” that the Yadkin Project’s bald eagle population is recovering, but he thinks Alcoa does more harm than good to the local environment.
“I said last year when I did the Tour de Yadkin, some of Alcoa’s shoreline managment plans are good,” Naujoks said. “But it’s not factual to say that their work or their stewardship led to this recovery… The reality is, bald eagle populations are recovering all around the United States because we banned DDT back in the late ’70s.”
Watts said both Alcoa’s efforts and chemical bans may have played a part. And just the existence of reservoirs created by dams can attract fish-eating birds.
“It’s likely that there are more breeding pairs there now than there ever were historically, because the dams have sort of created a new habitat for those species,” he said. “The fish coming through the outflow are oftentimes stunned, so they’re more available and more concentrated around the dams.”
Heron and egrets
The Yadkin Project also attracts great blue herons and great egrets, both of which generally nest in woodlands near shallow water and wetlands.
Since 2001, the total number of heron colonies at the Yadkin Project has increased from five colonies, with an estimated 592 breeding pairs, to 13 colonies, with an estimated 995 breeding pairs. Great blue herons are found most frequently at High Rock Lake, which was home to eight colonies with an estimated 529 breeding pairs in 2010.
Great egrets were first spotted nesting within great blue heron colonies on High Rock Lake in 2004. In 2010, there were a total of 64 breeding pairs of great egrets located at High Rock, Tuckertown and Badin Lake.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.