Sometime between the post-war ‘50s rebuilding of American normalcy and the mid-‘60s to ‘70s challenge to that normalcy the American Bald Eagle dropped out of the nation’s skies. And except for the scientists and the groups whose lifestyle included the flyer, few people noticed.
By 1982 Haliaeetus leucocephalus (the name, a mix of Latin and Greek, means sea eagle with a white head), the impressive, majestic icon of power that for millenia soared throughout New Jersey, was absent from the state.
The bald eagle, found only in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, once the unassailed king of the sky, had died a decades-slow death from poisoning. A rush to produce food for a burgeoning peacetime population led to the widespread use of DDT. The pesticide built up in the flesh of the eagles’ main prey, fish and wildfowl. The poison weakened the birds’ eggs and they did not hatch.
As of 1982, according to Larry Hajna, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) of New Jersey, there was only one bald eagle nest left in all of New Jersey. That nest was about 35 miles from Swedesboro, in Cumberland County’s Bear Swamp, and its occupants had tried year after year to produce young.
Now here’s the good news. People saw the bald eagle, symbol of our country, about to go extinct and discovered the cause of its and other species’ declining numbers. The use of DDT was banned in 1972, although it took years to fade out of the ecosystem. In 1976 the eagle was placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In New Jersey, every effort was made to save that one, lone nest in the state, Hajna said. What succeeded best was a technique called “hacking”, in which eggs were snatched from the nest, replaced with dummy eggs, and hatched in an incubator. Once hatched, the babies were returned to the nest and the dummy eggs removed. The parents seemed not to notice and started raising their hatchlings.
A true success story, the eagle save and rescue efforts worked so well that the number of nests in the state grew from one in 1982 to 161 by 2016. About 200 eaglets were hatched last year from those nests. (Fifty percent of young eagles, however, do not make it through their first year.)
It turns out that southern New Jersey is prime eagle grounds. Nearly 50 percent of the nests in the state are in the Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties, following the Delaware River to the sea.
Gloucester County currently has 14 active nests, according to DEP records, and a long-term Gibbstown resident may well have discovered the very first nest in the county to start up as eagles began to spread once more.
In 1991, Isabella “Bunny” Clegg and her husband, Elmer, went out looking for an eagle’s nest. She couldn’t remember seeing an eagle but, “We heard in town there was a nest around here so we were checking around to see if we could see it.”
Sure enough, they noticed a large nest in a tall tree near the DuPont Repauno Works. An outdoorsman, Elmer Clegg took an interest in the nesting birds and often arranged his walking schedule to include the nest, his wife said. “I don’t think there were any other nests in the county, at least, that I heard of,” Bunny recalled. “So it might have been the first to come back.”
One day Bunny Clegg met a man from the DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, Endangered and Non-game Species Program, also checking on the nest. The DEP was looking for eagle watchers, he told Bunny.
They wanted observers to train to go out periodically and observe happenings in active nests. It is a vital program that uses volunteers to keep the DEP informed of nest activity and problems.
“I volunteered Elmer,” Bunny said. “I knew that was just what he’d like.” Elmer, a veteran of the Air Force, whose seal is a bald eagle with wings spread, “really enjoyed it,” she said. “He would go out. He would sit for hours and hours looking at the nest.”
More eagles entered the area as the eagle population rebounded. Bunny and Elmer began taking on more nests. “I saw it as something we could do together after he retired (in 1993),” she said. “We’d go out, sometimes all bundled up, and watch the nests with our scope. We’ve been doing it for pretty much more than 20 years. Since DuPont has been out of business, the woods have grown and wildlife has moved in by the Delaware River. We were the first in the area to become volunteer observers.”
At one point, the Cleggs were watching eight eagle nests from “the Gibbstown area to Oldman’s Creek just outside of Swedesboro,” traveling in their truck several days a week to keep abreast of the eagles. “It was a lot to take on,” she said, “so we gave away the Oldman’s Creek nest.” She still watches six to seven nests.
Her husband, she said, “had a sixth sense. If a nest fails (to hatch eggs, or is blown down, for example) the eagles will seek a new nest. Elmer would say, ‘Where would I go if I were an eagle here’ and he’d find the new nest. I remember early on when each nest was critical, there were so few of them. It’s a big day when you see, like my husband would say, ‘the first fuzzy little head above the nest.’ It meant a hatchling had arrived. It was so exciting. Elmer waited for that every year, the babies.”
No longer on the endangered list (but still a protected species), the eagles have benefited from the DEP expertise and the dedication of volunteers like the Cleggs ,whose children are now eagle watchers. People who have never seen an eagle except on video or in pictures are lately surprised to come across the birds, but the eagles are there in increasing encounters.
Isabella Cox, 16, from Pennsville, had just such a surprise encounter. She was driving with her family along a back road near Swedesboro last spring. “We saw a bald eagle,” she said, remembering the excitement. “It had the big white head and it was pretty big for a bird. Other than in a zoo, that’s the first time I’ve seen a bald eagle. We all saw it and said, ‘Oh look! Look at that!’
“It was so cool. They’re so big. It was just standing on the ground, looking around. I never thought I’d see one. It was an experience for us,” she said, her eyes lighting up as she recounted that experience.
As more eagles settle the area, there will be more interaction with local residents. There are regulations in place that put the eagles’ welfare at the forefront and a good place to learn about eagles and other protected animals is the conservewildlifenj.org site and, of course, DEP’s fish and wildlife site: www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw.
You will learn not to get closer than 1,000 feet to an eagle nest, or they may abandon it, for example. Eagles continue to be a protected species and it is illegal to harass them in any way, to hunt them or to scare them. “Elmer was careful, and I am careful, to not get close. It’s why you need a scope to watch them,” Bunny Clegg said.
The big predators, alpha in their local food chain, are nonetheless very skittish about intrusion, according to Kathy Clark. And with her title of “Biologist in the Endangered and Non-game Species Program, Division of Fish and Wildlife, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, she would know. “An eagle knows what a predator looks like. It looks like an animal walking stealthily and quietly up to you. It looks like us,” she said, meaning people trying to get close to an eagle or its nest.
It is illegal not only to harass or hunt the birds, but to even possess a feather or item from the nest, like an abandoned egg, she said. And if you come across an injured adult or young eagle, call 877-WARN-DEP (877-927-6337), the Fish and Wildlife Division, for instructions.
“In general, we suggest people use binoculars or a scope to view eagles (on their home ground),” Clark said. Eagles will get accustomed to the activities of everyday behavior, like a “farmer on his tractor,” she said, but “If several people a day come too near a nest, it can drive the parents away and cause the nest to fail. Nobody should be closer than 1,000 feet from a nest.”
Usually crafted high in tall trees and often weighing hundreds of pounds, a nest is still vulnerable. One day in 2006 the Cleggs came across a nest apparently taken down by wind the day before. There were two young birds on the ground and two parents flying above.
“Elmer saw one bird was injured and he picked it up to examine it. I held the other one,” Bunny Clegg said. They called the Fish and Wildlife biologist and one bird was declared fit to be left with the parents. Fish and Wildlife staff actually built a substitute nest on a nearby platform and placed the eaglet inside. The parents accepted the nest and raised the baby, Bunny Clegg said.
But the other eaglet, the one Elmer rescued and cradled to keep it warm, was taken for medical care and pronounced unfit to be returned to the wild. It was cared for and, when ready, taken to the Mercer County Wildlife Refuge.
The bird was officially named C21 with the coding system for banded birds. Eagle watchers do not name the birds they observe, part of the wildlife remaining wild ethos. It still resides at the refuge, part of the animal cohort that gives public educational sessions.
Over the years Bunny and Elmer and their family members several times visited C21, nicknamed “Elmer’s Girl” by a friend despite tradition. They were there last month, Bunny Clegg said, happy to see the now adult female sleek and in her prime and well-cared for.
Elmer Clegg died last year at age 79. “He’s flying with his eagles now, and that’s nice to think about,” Bunny Clegg said quietly.
Besides his wife, Elmer leaves behind 11 children and grandchildren. And one eagle.
By Jean Redstone