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Record number of bald eagles in W.Va.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A record number of bald eagles have been spotted this year by volunteers tracking the fall migration of birds of prey at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, atop Peters Mountain in Monroe County.

Since early August, 195 bald eagles have been sighted by observers using a former U.S. Forest Service fire tower mounted on a boulder at the crest of the 3,812-foot peak in the Jefferson National Forest. The previous record for bald eagles sighted at Hanging Rock was set in 2010, when 137 were sighted.

Hanging Rock has been the site of annual raptor migration counts by West Virginia birders since 1952.

This year's tally, expected to continue for two more weeks, also could produce a record number of golden eagle sightings. So far this year, 46 golden eagles have been spotted at Hanging Rock, approaching the record 54 spotted there in 2010.

Record single-day tallies for bald and golden eagles were set this year at the Monroe County site. On Sept. 30, 33 bald eagles were spotted there, more than doubling the previous one-day record of 16, set in 1996 and tied in 2010. On Nov. 10, 11 golden eagles were sighted, besting the previous record of 9, established in 2009.

"It's been a really good season, despite a lack of good wind conditions in October," said Rodney Davis of Sweet Springs, a long-time Hanging Rock volunteer who posts daily counts on the observatory's website, www.hangingrocktower.org.

"I think the eagle population is increasing a little every year," Davis said. "We've seen over 100 bald eagles a year for the past four years."

From 1974 through 1994, bald eagle sightings at Hanging Rock never reached double-digit totals, with some fall migration seasons passing without a single eagle being spotted.

A ban on the use of the insecticide DDT is believed to be the main reason for the rebound in the bald eagle population that began in the latter part of the 20th century. When eagles ate fish, mice and other small animals with DDT accumulations in their bodies, it caused female eagles to lay eggs with abnormally thin shells. When nesting parents sat on the eggs, they often cracked the shells, killing the chicks.

While many of the bald eagles spotted at Hanging Rock continue southward to wintering spots along the Atlantic coast or the Gulf of Mexico, others remain in the region. In a survey last January coordinated by now-retired Pipestem Resort State Park naturalist Jim Phillips, 27 bald eagles were found wintering in Southern West Virginia in and around Bluestone Lake and the southern end of the New River Gorge.

Other recent studies have shown that the West Virginia highlands are a prime over-wintering site for golden eagles living in the Eastern United States and Canada.

"It's been a very exciting year at Hanging Rock," Davis said. "We've had about 2,000 visitors come here to see bald and golden eagles, and the broadwing hawk migration." On Sept. 22, he said, "We had 1,591 raptors fly by, including 182 broadwings in one kettle," or group. "It's amazing to see hawks that look like a swarm of bees, all bunched up and riding a thermal."

On Tuesday, when temperatures plunged to subfreezing levels, Davis ended the days counting shortly after noon, but not before one golden eagle, one bald eagle, 11 assorted hawks and two visitors from Minnesota were spotted at the observatory.

By the end of November, Davis said, he hopes to see the bald eagle tally for the season break the 200 mark and the golden eagle sightings surpass the existing annual record of 54.

"One more really good day with northwest winds will help a lot toward getting us there," he said.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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