The eagle has landed

Eagle's appearance could mean good news for the environment
By Rachel Robles, Lifestyles editor | Apr 28, 2014
Photo by: Will Siler KEEPING AN EAGLE EYE OUT — The presence of a bald eagle in Haywood County has been ruffling a few feathers.

Kyle Cherry, of Clyde, wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when he went to feed his chickens earlier this month. He certainly wasn’t expecting to see a bald eagle.

“When I went outside to feed them, they were underneath the porch, and I saw something fly by out of the corner of my eye and when I looked, there was a tail,” Cherry said.

Because Cherry first spotted the eagle around April Fool’s Day, he thought it might have been a prank, but upon closer inspection discovered it was the real deal.

“He tried to get one of my chickens,” Cherry said. “I have three female chickens and one is pretty small, and he was aiming for that one. They’re like a bat signal. Every time I see them running underneath the porch, I go looking. When there’s a bird of prey around, they duck under that porch.”

The eagle sighting has been ruffling feathers since February when it was spotted at Lake Junaluska. Robert Watson, a resident at the lake, was able to take several pictures of the eagle while it was at the lake.

“I was riding around the backside of the lake back in February and I noticed this little group of people near Lakeshore Drive,” Watson said. “There was a big oak tree and it was there.

“It totally blew me away,” Watson said. “I have some feeders and keep track of local birds. But I’ve never seen a bald eagle except in captivity.”

Watson speculates that the eagle was at the Lake Junaluska at this particular time because the lake was drained.

“All the fish were concentrated near the dam,” Watson said. “It’s like a smorgasbord. It’s like ‘dinner’s served.’”
Since February, the eagle has made its way to Clyde and has more recently been spotted in Canton, following the Pigeon River.

“It’s following the river corridor,” said Shannon Rabby, lead instructor of fish and wildlife management technology at Haywood Community College. “Eagles eat lots of fish and dead animals, but they like bodies of water — lakes, rivers, marshes. It’s using the habitat along the Pigeon River corridor.

Rabby confirmed that the eagle is an adult bald eagle.

“We do have eagles in Haywood County,” Rabby said. “We get flyovers at Lake Junaluska. They’re relatively rare, but we do have eagles. Eagles were on the endangered species list. That’s something we’re proud of professionally — that we brought that bird back.”

Not endangered

In the late 20th century, the bald eagle was on the brink of being extinct in the continental United States. Several factors put bald eagles on the endangered species list, but one of the biggest culprits was DDT, a synthetic pesticide initially used to combat malaria, typhus and other insect-borne diseases.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” which detailed the affects DDT had on bird populations; namely, that DDT weakened eggshells, leading to a drastic decline of bald eagles, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons and ospreys.

DDT was banned in 1972, and since then, aggressive legislation protecting bald eagles and careful monitoring led to a rebound in the eagle population. The bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list June 28, 2007, and its current conservation status is “least concern.”

“That’s cool that we have an eagle in Clyde,” Rabby said. “It might just be passing through. Some of them don’t migrate. Some of them do. It’s exciting to have them around. It’s our national symbol. I have seen them in Haywood County, but I’ve never seen them on the Pigeon River.”

Cherry believes the eagle’s presence is a good sign that the waterways are improving.

“I think he’s here because the river has improved,” Cherry said. “There’s lots of duck species and waterfowl in the river now, which is different from when I moved here three years ago. My grandfather was a farmer, hunter and an American Woodsman. He told me that when a river is plentiful and the area is healthy, bigger birds of prey will come by. I do a lot of fishing in this area, catch and release, and I’ve seen the fish population improve.”

He’s not far off.

According to Eric Romaniszyn, director of Haywood Waterways, a lot of work has been done to restock the Pigeon River with native fish populations. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission keeps a healthy supply of trout available through its stocking program, which wouldn't happen if our streams didn't remain cold and clean.
“I would agree that sighting a bald eagle is an indication of improving water quality,” Romaniszyn said.

“Sediment is our number one water quality pollutant and can be highly detrimental to aquatic invertebrates and fish,” Romaniszyn said. “It can smother their ‘homes’ and wreak havoc on the food chain. One of the primary foods of bald eagles is fish, so having a stable food chain from top to bottom leads to more available fish as food. With the downturn in the economy and subsequent reduction in new mountainside roads — which are one of the primary sources of sediment along with eroding stream banks — there has no doubt been a reduction in sediment loads.

Another factor is habitat. The forests aren’t being cleared as fast, Romaniszyn added, which means there are more options for nesting, especially near rivers and reservoirs.

“Assuming food and habitat is good, wildlife populations increase exponentially rather than linearly; so I expect within the next 10 years eagles will be common, assuming all things stay the same,” Romaniszyn said.

Whatever the appeal, the eagle’s stay in Haywood County has brought untold joy to residents and is a welcome reward to those who have worked so hard to improve and preserve its habitat.