With more and more work going into the care of the Monongahela River and the creeks and waterways throughout western Pennsylvania, more and more wildlife is making its way into our area. You’re sure to spot a multitude of birds and fish during your Mon River journeys – and if you’re really lucky, you may just spot a bald eagle!
Once an endangered species, this beautiful national symbol has bounced back since 1963, when only 417 mating pairs of bald eagles remained. As recently as the 1980s, only three bald eagle nests existed in Pennsylvania.
Today this fish-eating raptor is no longer considered endangered, and it’s estimated that 7,066 nesting pairs live in the U.S., primarily in sections of Alaska, Canada, and the northern U.S. As for Pennsylvania? The eagle population has bounced back tremendously, to the point that tracking the eagles can be quite difficult.
About The Bald Eagle
Bald eagles are well recognized for their brown body and white head and tail. If you spot an eagle with this plumage, that means that eagle is over 5 years old. Prior to reaching full adulthood, bald eagles are speckled brown-and-white. As with all raptors, female eagles are larger than their male counterparts.
Bald eagles love fish, which is why they are most commonly spotted near bodies of water. These eagles are opportunistic hunters, however, and will also catch birds, rabbits, and squirrels if they aren’t having any luck fishing.
Bald eagles mate for life and pairs are very territorial during their breeding season. Incredibly, the breeding season of eagles can occur any time between October and May, depending on the exact location of the eagles and the climate in that area; the local Hays neighborhood bald eagles were seen laying eggs in the month of February last year.
During the month (or even three months) before their mating season, bald eagles build a nest in a tall tree or on a cliff that’s near a body of water. The eagles use the same nest year after year, adding twigs and grasses to the nest to strengthen it each season. As a result of this repeated use, nests may become very large, up to 13 feet tall and ten feet across.
Once the nest is ready, bald eagles will then lay two or three eggs. After an incubation period that is just over a month long, the eaglets hatch, and spend the next ten to 12 weeks growing in their nest. After 6 weeks the eaglets are old enough to fly, although they do not reach full adulthood for several years. Incredibly, these eagles can live up to 50 years, assuming they avoid severe sickness or injury.
While some bald eagles migrate great distances seasonally, local Western Pennsylvania pairs are not very migratory, as they can find plenty of food throughout the year. Nearby eagle pairs likely will not migrate unless food becomes scarce, and even then, it would just be for a short time and distance. They may only go as far as Maryland, where there is a small winter colony of birds.
Sights Near Us!
It’s one thing to read about bald eagles and another to see them during local nature hikes. Fortunately, as bald eagles continue to recover, visitors to our Mon River communities have reported more and more eagle sightings. For example:
Visitors and staff have reported seeing up to four bald eagles at a time soaring above the Youghiogheny River, particularly between the Yough bike and pedestrian bridge and the point where the Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers and Laurel Hill Creek merge. Locals report that visitors are likely to spot ospreys, red-tailed hawk and turkey buzzards during visits as well.
The owners of the Yough Tree House were lucky enough to snap a photo of two bald eagles – one perched about eight feet above the other one – in a tree near the Yough Tree House.
Locals report that bald eagle sightings are a common occurrence in Confluence because there is a variety of food sources, especially since the fish commission stocks the Yough, Casselman and Laurel Hill Creek.
More Sightings Coming Soon?
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh was recently consulted about the possibility of eagles in the Mon River Valley. According to experts, the Mid Mon Valley could definitely be the next location for an eagle couple to select for a territory and nest.
An eagle matures around the 4th or 5th year. The Hays pair (which nests near the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail around Pittsburgh) has been mating in the area for five years. There is also a pair of eagles in Harmar and by Canonsburg Lake. With new birds growing in the surrounding areas, it is the Aviary staff’s opinion that in the next few years, there will likely be at least one pair in the mid Mon.
Interestingly, eagles tend to select areas that do not have hiking trails. They avoid human interaction and do not like ATVs. However, things like trains and other industrial equipment do not bother them. They seem to be able to distinguish from a non-threat and a potential human threat.
Sighting Eagles Safely
If you plan on looking for eagles during your next trip along the Mon, we ask that you consider the land and animals you will be interacting with and plan accordingly. Since eagles do not tend to nest near trails that are used by humans, you will need to prepare to view any nests from a distance. Attempting to leave an approved trail for a closer look could put yourself in danger and drive away these beautiful birds. And it’s especially important to not try to climb into an eagle’s nest, both for your own safety and to avoid disrupting the eagle’s habitat and family. Having binoculars on hand is the best way to see these beautiful birds without getting too close (i.e. within 1,000 feet). Respecting the land they live in and not straying far from local trails is also very important, as is respecting all local property laws.
A Special Announcement
Have you come across any of these majestic animals on your hikes? Snap a picture and enter our Instagram Photo Contest! Post your Bald Eagle photos using the hashtag #RTPEagleSearch2017 for a chance to win a weekly $25 gift card. More information on the contest and rules can be found here. If you unable to get a photo, we would still love to hear where you are seeing the eagles. Please direct message the Mon River Towns Facebook page, @RiverTownProgram, with the location, date, and time of day with your sightings.