Day a chance for Kansas to celebrate bald eagles

Gov. Sam Brownback has drawn some cheers during his political career.

Seldom was one more appropriate than Monday morning when Kansa, a female bald eagle, let loose a loud call just after Brownback declared Monday American Eagle Day in Kansas.

Brownback made the proclamation at the Great Plains Nature Center near 29th North and Woodlawn in Wichita.

The current status of bald eagles in Kansas is certainly something for the birds to crow about.

Mike Watkins, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist, said Kansas has at least 52 active bald eagle nests this year. They've produced at least 73 eaglets.

Brownback said that when he was growing up on a farm in eastern Kansas he never considered the possibility of seeing a bald eagle in Kansas.

"That was something you might see if you went way up north, like Canada or Alaska," he said. "At the time you didn't associate them with Kansas."

He vividly remembers the first time he saw a Kansas bald eagle, near Lawrence several years ago. "They truly are an amazing sight," Brownback said.

During the ceremony Brownback said Kansas' first nesting pair of bald eagles in modern times were at Clinton Lake, near Lawrence, in 1989. Watkins said last year Kansas had 45 active nests and 69 fledged eaglets.

A nest is considered active when eggs and incubation are documented.

"This is a great example of what we can do when we help Mother Nature do her work and get a species to recover," Brownback said in an interview. "A lot of people came together to help."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps of Engineers, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and Kansas landowners were given credit for helping with the comeback.

America's bald eagle population dropped to about 2,000 birds and about 400 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in the 1970s. The main villain was DDT, a pesticide that accumulated in the birds and resulted in weak-shelled eggs that broke during incubation.

Bald eagles have been removed from Kansas and federal endangered and threatened species lists though they're still a protected species.

Watkins credited the creation of more than 20 federal reservoirs in Kansas for creating ideal places for migrating eagles to spend the winter and eventually nest. Bald eagles feed heavily on fish and now nest at most reservoirs and major rivers in central and eastern Kansas.

He said Kansas annually has had several nests and eaglets destroyed by high winds. A few adult eagles die or are injured in Kansas every year.

Jenn Rader, of the Prairie Park Nature Center in Lawrence, said Kansa struck a power line in 2003 and can't be returned to the wild. Poachers have shot a few Kansas eagles. Rader said deaths from digesting lead shot while eating carrion is still a national concern.

Eagles can be long-lived birds. Watkins said one male has returned to nest at Clinton Lake for at least 22 years.

Bob Gress, Great Plains Nature Center director, said eagles had an active nest in Sedgwick County in 2010. That nest isn't active this year and he's heard of no other active nests in the county.

That doesn't mean they're not there.

"The last few years it seems like we've had bald eagle nests popping up all over the place," he said. "But they're not as easy to find as you think they might be."

Leaves on surrounding trees and remote locations can make finding nests difficult.

Watkins said he was once returning from a spring turkey hunt when he noticed a bald eagle carrying a fish as it flew across the sky.

"I turned around and followed the bird and it led me right to a nest," he said. "When I talked to the landowner, he said it had been there (several) years and he'd been wondering when we'd find it."

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