Bald eagles soar, nest in Columbia

Harbaugh said the bald eagles have been spotted around the lakes "daily instead of weekly."

For nearly 30 years, bald eagles remained on the endangered species list after a pesticide, known as DDT, poisoned a significant number of the population, according to Central Regional Ecologist Dave Brinker of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

"It was a real low point in the '70s when things were not doing well," the Wildlife and Heritage Service ecologist said, as the pesticide was manufactured to control mosquitoes and insects. "Bald eagle populations have dramatically recovered in the state of Maryland from a low of 44 in 1977 when they really bombed out. Once DDT was banned and started to remove itself from the system, things started to improve."

After the species' removal from the list in August 2007, he continued, the numbers of bald eagles soared once more, with an estimated 600 pairs in Maryland as of 2015. A few years later, sightings were also reported in Columbia's own backyard around Wilde Lake, Lake Kittamaqundi and Lake Elkhorn; a number that continues to grow today.

"Five years ago, you may have seen an eagle at one of our three lakes maybe a couple of times a year," said Sean Harbaugh, assistant director of the Columbia Association's Open Space Management Division. "They would come through, fish and leave. Then, maybe three or four years ago, I became aware of a nesting pair, as the eagle flies, five or six miles away."

Harbaugh said the bald eagles have been spotted around the lakes "daily instead of weekly," swooping from the skies down to the glassy waters and catching their prey. While many have described the view as breathtaking, one question remains on everyone's mind: Why are they here?

Chiara D'Amore, founder of family nature club Columbia Families in Nature, said the species prefer to inhabit undeveloped areas. With Columbia's 3,800 acres of open space spread throughout the town, she said it's "remarkable" that bald eagles have chosen this area.

"We actually went out to see the eagles [Friday morning] at Wilde Lake, which was really a lot of fun," D'Amore said.

The ecologist said she heard of another theory regarding their growing Columbia population, involving this year's oddly warm winter weather that has led to an increase in dead fish. This allows for "easy hunting," D'Amore explained, making the lakes an appealing environment.

Meanwhile, Brinker attributes their presence to a flourishing population.

"They need space and they're territorial," Brinker said. "When one pair sets up a space someplace along the Chesapeake Bay, then they will exclude others. As the density has gotten greater, the birds move to territories that might not be prime if you were at lower densities. But, they're places where the birds can make it and do well."

Brinker added that bald eagles have begun to inhabit Howard County to "fill up these little holes." Although they are territorial, the species can thrive in human populated areas and adapt to any human disturbance.

"There are limits that they won't cross, but as the bald eagle population has become denser and denser, quiet places are becoming harder to find," he said. "We've seen them sit there and be like, 'I can tolerate the human activity around here and squeeze myself in.'"

Through the Rouse vision of respecting the land, Harbaugh said Columbia has become the home of other birds as well, such as the red-shouldered hawk. D'Amore added that one of her most exciting sightings has been the presence of beavers at Font Hill Wetlands Park in Ellicott City.

"This fall, they have just become tremendously active," she said. “They have cut down huge numbers of trees and have built a damn and you see them swimming in that small park.”

Someday soon, Harbaugh said he hopes to see a nesting pair even closer to the Columbia lakes.

"I think it would be extremely special," Harbaugh said. "I've seen them several times, but being able to watch a bird as big as this fish in our suburban area is pretty cool. It's pretty awe-inspiring."

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