They're hailed as the all-American bird, a symbol of freedom and the U.S. emblem—and residents say they've been spotting them in Somerset County.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission says there are no confirmed bald eagle nests in Somerset County, but photos indicate eagles are frequenting the area and may be regular inhabitants.
"Statewide, we've been doing really well," said Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor for the Pa. Game Commission Southwest Region in Bolivar. "We don't have any confirmed nests yet in Somerset County, but that doesn't mean there aren't any eagles. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a pair nesting in Somerset County—it just hasn't been confirmed yet."
Fazi said the commission investigates each call they receive of an active nest.
"A pair started a nesting site about two years ago along the Casselman River, but a storm blew the nest down and the eagles never rebuilt it," he said.
Another report of a nest along the Quemahoning River proved to be a similar-looking bird, a ring tail hawk.
Overhunting, insecticides and deforestation contributed to the decline of bald eagles, but the birds have shown significant improvement since their removal from threatened status under the Endangered Species Act in 2007.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped rebuild the eagle population by banning DDT, a commonly used pesticide, in 1972. They also prohibited the killing of eagles and worked with other environmental groups such as the Pa. Game Commission to improve water quality in lakes and rivers.
As a result, the number of breeding pairs of eagles increased from 487 in 1963 to 9,789 in 2006.
Rodney Simmons, who lives in Berlin, said he spotted an eagle while bird-watching March 14 at Lake Somerset with his wife, Sue.
Simmons said he spotted the eagle around 10:30 a.m.
"My wife and I go there sometimes to eat dinner and watch the birds," he said. "This is the first time I saw an eagle there. I was looking across the lake, and I wasn't sure what it was until I zoomed in with my camera."
Simmons said he went back to the lake for a week or so later, but he didn't see the eagle again.
Margo Miller Sterner, Fort Hill, said she saw an eagle March 29.
"I'd say we see them once or twice a week. We normally see them in the Mt. Davis area," she said. "I even saw them through the winter."
Jess Whittemore, a photographer from Friendsville, Md., said she has seen eagles around Confluence, often in the trees along Yough Lake, in the early morning hours.
"The bald eagles that frequent Confluence are still coming here for the third year in a row," she said in an email. "Their nest is on Yough Lake at a secret location. The lake didn't have ice on it for much of the winter, so they seemed to not come to Confluence as much."
Pennsylvania's nesting population experienced a growth rate of more than 20 percent per year beginning in the early 1990s, according to an eagle population management plan published by the Pa. Game Commission. The eagles' nesting population nearly doubled between 1997 and 1999 from 23 to 43 active nests.
As of 2009, eagle nests were found in 48 state counties and totaled 174 active nests which produced 244 young.
Eagles nests were reported for the first time in Bedford and Beaver counties in 2009, according to the report. Crawford County reported 17 active nests that year, the most of any other county in the state.
Fazi said he encourages people to report eagle nests and sightings to the game commission so they can investigate the site.
"We like to monitor the site, and see how many young they produce. We just confirmed a new site in Westmoreland County, so now there's three different nesting sites there," he said. "Even if the nest is abandoned, we still continue to check and see if eagles are living there. We like to protect them from harassment."
It wasn't too long ago, he added, that he saw one flying near his work headquarters in Bolivar.
"I was looking out my office window, and one flew right over our regional office," he said.
To report an active eagle nest, call the Southwest Regional Office at 724-238-9523.
Eagles spotted in Somerset County
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