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It was a moment arranged to inspire awe: In 1996, President Bill Clinton stood at Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Independence Day as a rehabilitated bald eagle named Freedom was released back into the wild.

But something went horribly wrong. A pair of ospreys swooped in and attacked the eagle, sending it plunging into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Most of us didn’t realize what was going on,” Jackie Smith recalled. She had recently joined the Navy installation as a natural resources specialist, and said she was honored to attend the presidential ceremony 17 years ago.

“The bird flew and it was immediately attacked by a pair of osprey, and it fell into the water,” Smith said.

Rescuers retrieved the downed eagle, and it was promptly put back into a rehabilitation program, she said.

Enemies like the osprey aside, the bald eagle has made a miraculous comeback over the last four decades, including in Southern Maryland, where the raptors can often be spotted soaring through the skies or roosting in their nests high in the trees.

A true success story

Glenn Therres, Maryland Department of Natural Resources associate director for wildlife and heritage service, has studied bald eagles for 30 years and said they represent a true success story.

Bald eagles had declined so far that there were only an estimated 487 nesting pairs in 1963 in the U.S. (excluding Alaska). That was the year after author Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” raised attention to the effects of the chemical pesticide DDT.

There were as few as 44 nesting pairs in Maryland in 1977, Therres said.

By the mid-2000s, there were about 400 breeding pairs in Maryland alone, and populations continue to rebound throughout the country. The number of nesting pairs in the contiguous U.S. now approaches 10,000.

“With any wildlife species, there are dangerous situations to individuals,” but the population as a whole is now quite safe, Therres said.

Although the dangerous DDT was banned in 1972, the birds still need clean water to support their primary prey — fish, he said.

And eagle carcasses often are found after electrocution by overhead power lines or because of fights with other eagles or ospreys.

“Individuals are going to get hurt, individuals are going to die,” Therres said.

When dead eagles are found, officials sometimes collect the remains and send them to the national eagle repository. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can then distribute eagle parts for educational purposes or to Native American tribes for use in traditional ceremonies.

Therres estimated that one or two dozen bald eagles are found dead each year in the state.

Several eagles have been killed on naval bases in Southern Maryland, but those deaths are becoming less frequent as resource agents mitigate the causes.

“We have had a handful of strikes over 20 years,” Smith said, estimating that six or seven bald eagles were hit by fixed-wing or rotary aircraft landing at or taking off from the base.

Seth Berry, natural resources coordinator at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, said that there are anywhere from 10 to 14 active bald eagle nests on the installation each year.

Eagles nest in the trees along the 17 miles of shoreline at the base, habitat that is protected with buffer zones that keep some loud or disturbing activities at least 750 feet away during nesting season, from mid-December to mid-June.

The base has worked since 2005 to mitigate bald eagle electrocutions caused by them flying into or landing on electric wires at the base. Lines are retrofitted with “flight diverters” that make the lines more visible, and they are spread farther apart so the eagles cannot touch two wires at once, which can cause electrocution, Berry said. Before the improvements, as many as five birds would die from electrocution in a year on the base. Since then, mortality is zero, one or two birds a year.

“People are very interested in the eagles,” Berry said, “and osprey as well, but of course, eagles are going to stand out.”

Smith said that there are two nests at Pax River as well as one on Bloodsworth Island and one on Adam Island, two properties owned by the base in the Chesapeake Bay.

“For the most part, they have been productive,” she said of the nests, which usually yield one or two chicks a year.

For the last few years, Pax River and Indian Head have contracted with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., for aerial surveys of the known nests. The college does an initial flight in mid-March to look for active nests and then follows up with a second flight in May to find out how any eggs fared.

Smith and her colleagues do some ground viewing and surveys of the nests, especially one located in a strip of trees between two fairways on Pax River’s golf course that is easily visible.

“They seem to adapt very quickly to the expected noise,” Smith said.

The eagles do not seem disturbed as golfers walk or drive their carts near the nests, nor do they show reactions when plane or jet noise is heard nearby, based on Smith’s observations. She watched the nests to see whether the new, louder Joint Strike Fighter jet would disturb the birds, but they appeared fine, she said.

However, something unusual, like dumping a load of large rocks during shoreline restoration, has caused the birds to take note and look up from their activities, she said.

Still popular, and protected

Mike Callahan, the president of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, said that while they are majestic to behold, bald eagles are scavengers, thieves and wily hunters. They can be seen eating road kill and getting in aerial fights with other birds, especially ospreys, over food.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin advocated for the wild turkey as the nation’s symbol instead of the bald eagle because he didn’t think the eagle’s thieving tendencies would represent the fledgling country well, Callahan said.

“Good thing that was not chosen, or we would be eating our national bird,” he said of the holiday favorite.

Callahan, who lives in Newburg, said that in the late 1970s, there were five known active nests in Charles County. By 2000, that number had grown to 60, and “I’m sure they’re way above that now,” he said.

Bald eagles are prevalent throughout Southern Maryland. Charles has the second highest population (behind Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore) in the state, Callahan said. The swaths of undeveloped or underdeveloped land along the shorelines in Charles offer ideal spots for eagles to nest.

Meg Nicholas, administrative coordinator at the Accokeek Foundation located on the Potomac, said that there are quite a few bald eagles in the park, which offers good public viewing of the birds. Once, she said, as she spoke with an intern on the property, a dead fish dropped from the sky and landed right next to them. She looked up and saw an eagle soaring away after its fumble.

Brandon Burton, site manager at the foundation, said that eagles can often be found near Bull’s Cove, just south of the park’s boat dock. They are also usually relatively easy to find in neighboring Piscataway Park, especially near the boardwalk.

The bald eagle was added to the U.S. list of endangered species on March 11, 1967. It stayed on that list for 40 years.

Thanks to the banning of DDT and better protection of eagle habitats, which are mainly along shorelines, bald eagles have made nothing short of a miraculous comeback, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Chesapeake Bay region put into effect its own plan to help the eagles in 1982, with revisions made in 1990. That plan called for protections to existing nests as well as foraging and roosting habitats.

Nests were to be monitored, and a public education program was put into effect to make sure people knew not to disturb or hurt the eagles.

The birds were “delisted” from the endangered species list in 2007, although they are still protected under several other laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The Lacey Act of 1900 offers protections to bald eagles, including making it illegal to possess, transport, sell, import or export bald eagle parts, nests or eggs.

In 2007, a St. Mary’s man shot and killed a bald eagle from his back porch. At the time, he said he thought he was shooting at a vulture. The Bushwood resident pleaded guilty in federal court and was fined $2,500 and placed on probation.

There have been few, if any, other violations in Southern Maryland associated with bald eagles over the last decade.

Bob Boxwell, executive director of Cove Point Natural Heritage Trust in Calvert County, said people enjoy seeing eagles in the area. Boxwell said he most often spots the birds during winter, with particularly high activity in areas around Herring Creek and Parker’s Creek.

“Once the osprey show up [in March], the eagles kind of vanish into the forest,” Boxwell said. “They’re outnumbered.”

Not all bald eagles migrate, including many that nest in this region. They may “bounce around” the region to look for food now and again, but they generally stay in the area, Therres said.

Not all bald eagles migrate, including many that nest in this region. They may “bounce around” the region to look for food now and again, but they generally stay in the area, Therres said.

In addition to the resident eagles, the lands around the Chesapeake Bay offer temporary homes to migratory eagles from both south and north during certain seasons.

John Attebury of Lusby has tried from his plane to catch glimpses and images of eagles that nest around Calvert Cliffs overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not an easy feat, he said, adding that he takes a door off his small two-seater plane to get a more panoramic view.

Once, an eagle looked like it was heading right into the side of his plane, he said. Eagles can have up to 7-foot wingspans and weigh as much as 14 pounds.

“He threw his wings out to put on the brakes. It was just a gorgeous view,” Attebury said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com