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The eagles have landed

Majestic national birds are flourishing again in Alabama

Courtesy of Alabama Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources

By John N. Felsher

When America adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol in 1782, the country may have had as many as 100,000 nesting eagles. Since that day, though, the American people haven’t always treated the national symbol with reverence.

Many people considered eagles nothing more than scavengers or predators to be exterminated. They almost succeeded. By 1963, fewer than 500 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 contiguous states, none in Alabama.

“Historically, eagles were found everywhere in Alabama,” says Carrie Threadgill, the Nongame Wildlife Program coordinator for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “With the rise in some pesticide usage and other threats, the eagle population declined drastically in the early 20th century.”

Beginning with the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, followed by an amendment including golden eagles in 1962, a series of laws began to protect eagles and other raptors. Finally, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act of 1973, putting eagles on the Endangered Species List.

A year earlier, the nation banned DDT. The powerful agricultural pesticide washed into rivers and lakes where fish-eating birds like eagles and pelicans ingested it. The poison weakened eggshells so feathered parents could not incubate their eggs without crushing them. With federal protection and the DDT ban, eagle populations began to soar. To hasten this rebound, Alabama and other states began reintroduction programs.

“After the Nongame Wildlife Program was created in 1984, one of the first projects we did was the bald eagle reintroduction program,” Threadgill says. “In 1985, an eagle might occasionally migrate through the state, but there were no breeding pairs in Alabama at the time.”

Photo by John Felsher

Bringing eagles back

In what is called a “hacking” program, Alabama biologists took young bald eagles from Florida and put them in “hacking towers,” or large enclosed artificial eagle nests. The state built six towers along major river systems in Alabama. Once old enough to fend for themselves, the birds were released into the wild.

“At that time, bald eagles were doing fairly well in Florida,” Threadgill recalls. “The goal was to raise the babies without human interaction. Once we released them, we hoped they would become imprinted to that area, stay and breed. The first confirmed successful eagle nesting since 1962 occurred in 1991.”

From 1985 to 1991, the state released 91 eagles. By 1992, the U.S. bald eagle population grew to more than 100,000 with about half of them in Alaska. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclassified bald eagles from “endangered” to “threatened” and removed the birds from the Endangered Species List entirely on June 28, 2007, but eagles remain protected.

“Eagles are doing great in Alabama now,” Threadgill says. “We get eagle sightings in every county throughout the year. We have confirmed records of eagles breeding in 49 counties, but we are fairly certain that they are nesting in every county in Alabama. We have more than 200 resident nesting pairs in the state, but during the winter, many more birds migrate down from other states.”

The highest bald eagle concentrations in Alabama occur along the Tennessee River and associated lakes like Pickwick, Wheeler and Guntersville in the northern part of the state. But you may see eagles on other lakes or rivers across Alabama. Several nesting pairs live in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile.

Golden eagles in Alabama

Bird watchers might also see golden eagles in Alabama. Golden eagles traditionally live in the canyons and mountains of western states and Canada, but some winter in the Southeast, including Alabama. Slightly larger than bald eagles, golden eagles sport a light golden “cape” on their heads and upper backs rather than the distinctive white top of their cousins. Many people mistake goldens for immature bald eagles that haven’t developed their iconic white headgear.

“We have a wintering population of golden eagles, but not a breeding population,” Threadgill says. “Over the past 100 years or so, we’ve had a handful of records of goldens visiting the state, but we are seeing more of them now. Goldens actually have two populations in North America, an eastern and a western population. The eastern population is more migratory. They breed in Canada and winter in the South. Some may even winter farther south than Alabama.”

Since 2012, Alabama has joined 15 other eastern states in projects to monitor golden eagle movements. Researchers put up game cameras in several locations to spot the eagles and trapped 12 of them in Alabama. The researchers fitted the eagles with radio-tracking devices and released them.

“The golden eagle population in Alabama is a lot higher than we first expected,” Threadgill says. “With the transmitters, we’ve tracked golden eagles to the northern provinces of Canada around Hudson Bay.”

Money for eagle research and other projects conducted by the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program comes primarily from the sale of hunting licenses and excise taxes on guns and ammunition purchased by sportsmen. The federal government reimburses states a portion of those excise taxes collected based upon the number of licenses sold.

 

Want to see eagles in the wild or up close?

Eagle Awareness Weekends at Lake Guntersville State Park (alapark.com/lake-guntersville-state-park) offer people outstanding opportunities to spot raptors and other birds. The event runs over four straight weekends from Jan. 25 through Feb. 17. People may participate in many different activities and presentations or explore on their own.

“Winter is the prime time to see eagles in Alabama,” says Michael Ezell, the park naturalist. “We host some guided field trips. We also bring in experts to present programs on birds of prey, birds in general and other topics like reptiles and plants. Some experts bring in birds that have been injured and rehabilitated, but cannot be released into the wild so people can see them up close.”

All Eagle Awareness Weekends events are free and open to the public. The park offers a variety of lodging options from hotel-style rooms in the resort to camping.

“I can almost guarantee that people will see an eagle around Lake Guntersville at this time,” Ezell says. “We have two active nests in the park. During the 2018 Eagle Awareness Weekends, we had 66 eagle sightings in two days.”

For more on Eagle Awareness Weekends and a complete schedule, see alapark.com/Lake-Guntersville-State-Park-Eagle-Awareness-Weekends-2019 or call Ezell at 256-762-3417.

Alabama People: Jay Lamar

Directing Alabama’s Bicentennial

Jay Lamar is the executive director of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission, which was set up in 2013 to plan and coordinate events and activities celebrating the 200th anniversary of Alabama’s statehood. Appointed in early 2014, she previously worked at Auburn University in a variety of capacities. A native of Alabama, Lamar is also co-editor (with Jeanie Thompson) of The Remembered Gate: Memoirs by Alabama Writers. Of special interest to our readers is that Jay is the sister of Katie Lamar Jackson, our garden columnist. She is a very busy lady, but she managed to take some time to answer a few questions about this three-year long celebration of our state. — Lenore Vickrey 

How did you get involved with the Alabama 200 project?

By sheer luck and good fortune!

Why is Alabama’s bicentennial spread over three years?

The Alabama Bicentennial Commission leadership took its cue from Dr. Ed Bridges, director emeritus of the Alabama Department of Archives and History. He pointed out that the state’s territorial period was relatively brief, beginning in 1817 and concluding with statehood in 1819. A three-year window for creating and making significant projects happen was just irresistible. One example of why this was a genius idea: Almost a thousand teachers and administrators in Alabama’s public, private, and home schools have been able to benefit from new curriculum, primary source materials, and high-level professional development to prepare them for making the most of a once-in-a-lifetime “teaching moment.”

It must take a lot of people to pull off a three-year celebration. How many folks are involved and how did it all come together?

The sheer number of agencies and organizations involved is astounding! The Alabama Department of Archives & History, the Alabama Tourism Department, Alabama Historical Commission, Alabama Public Television, Alabama Humanities Foundation…these are agencies that are deeply involved and have been from the beginning. The bicentennial really happens because of the staff and resources committed from them and other partners.

Why is celebrating the state’s bicentennial important to the average Alabamian?

Celebrating this anniversary is important for our state because it is a chance to learn about our history and the places and people and events that shaped it. We have so much to be proud of and so much to build on and I believe that at the end of the day the bicentennial is really about our future. The bicentennial will be enriching and inspiring—and FUN!

What are some of the big events planned for 2019?

All of our events are on our website at alabama200.org. They include events all over the state, from the State Camellia Show in Mobile Feb. 15-19, to the opening of the restored Alabama Constitution Village in Huntsville March 2, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing July 15-20 in Huntsville, and the Poarch Creek Annual Thanksgiving Pow Wow Nov. 28-Dec. 1. There are events literally every week of this year!

Co-ops cooperating

Illustration by Dennis Auth

Hurricane season is over.

Officially at least.

If you were where a storm hit, the season was a bad one.  If the storms missed you, it wasn’t.

If you were a lineman working for an Alabama rural electrical co-op, where a hurricane hit was not the issue.  That one hit at all was what mattered.

I first became aware of this in late September 2004.  I left my home in North Alabama to check on our coastal cottage.  Hurricane Ivan had roared ashore at Gulf Shores the week before and since we were on the west side of the storm, the worst side, I was afraid of what I would find.

As I drove south on the Interstate, I passed scores of bucket trucks, driven by linemen from parts of the state that had not been hit.  They knew what was needed and were there to provide it.

They were putting the co-op in cooperation.

Until you have been through a coastal storm and seen what one can do, it is hard to imagine the magnitude of the destruction.  And until you have been without power for a few days, it is equally hard to imagine how you ever lived without it.

Recently Hurricane Michael reminded the Florida Panhandle and some of South Alabama just what nature can do.

Mexico Beach, east of Panama City, was described as a “war zone.”

Carrying the analogy further, the response to the disaster was not unlike the way our military responds in wartime.  Get boots on the ground, equipment and supplies in place, do the job you are trained to do, while back at headquarters, the coordinators decided who goes where, what resources are needed, and how best to repair what has been damaged and destroyed.

It is a massive undertaking.

We were down on the coast when Michael hit.  Though the worst of it was east of us, our power went out like everyone else’s.

Then the “first responders” arrived and went to work.

In the past I thought of first responders as police, firefighters, rescue workers and such.  After Michael I put linemen, right-of-way crews, engineers and mechanics in that category.

While the first responders were doing their work, we repacked frozen food in ice we had laid up when the storm approached. We fired up the grill to cook what we could, and set out the candles, flashlights, and lanterns that we kept in the “hurricane box” that we hoped we would never need.

The sunset was beautiful.  The storm had churned up all sorts of atmospheric clutter and the red rays bouncing off the bits and pieces were a delight to the eye.

Then it was dark.

Really dark.

Except for an occasional flashlight beam or the glow of a lantern in a window across the way, there was nothing.

It was a long night.

The next day we sat around, listened to the battery-operated radio, and waited for the dark.

It came.

And after that, the dawn.

Then another day of waiting until, just before sunset, electric lights flickered, then came on and held steady. Refrigerators and air conditioners began to hum.

Civilization restored.

The co-ops, cooperating, had done the job.

 

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist for Alabama Living. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Beware of scammers pretending to be from Social Security

In the digital age, frauds and scams are an unfortunate part of doing business online. During the holiday season, Social Security has traditionally seen a spike in phishing scams, and we want to protect you as best we can.

We urge you to always be cautious and to avoid providing sensitive information such as your Social Security Number (SSN) or bank account information to unknown individuals over the phone or internet. If you receive a call and aren’t expecting one, you must be extra careful. You can always get the caller’s information, hang up, and — if you do need more clarification — contact the official phone number of the business or agency that the caller claims to represent. Never reveal personal data to a stranger who called you.

Please take note; there’s a scam going around right now. You might receive a call from someone claiming to be from Social Security or another agency. Calls can even display the 1-800-772-1213, Social Security’s national customer service number, as the incoming number on your caller ID. In some cases, the caller states that Social Security does not have all of your personal information, such as your Social Security number (SSN), on file. Other callers claim Social Security needs additional information so the agency can increase your benefit payment, or that Social Security will terminate your benefits if they do not confirm your information. This appears to be a widespread issue, as reports have come from people across the country. These calls are not from Social Security.

Callers sometimes state that your Social Security number is at risk of being deactivated or deleted. The caller then asks you to provide a phone number to resolve the issue. People should be aware the scheme’s details may vary; however, you should avoid engaging with the caller or calling the number provided, as the caller might attempt to acquire personal information.

Social Security employees occasionally contact people by telephone for customer-service purposes. In only a few special situations, such as when you have business pending with us, a Social Security employee may request the person confirm personal information over the phone.

Social Security employees will never threaten you or promise a Social Security benefit approval or increase in exchange for information. In those cases, the call is fraudulent, and you should just hang up. If you receive these calls, please report the information to the Office of the Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or online at oig.ssa.gov/report.

Remember, only call official phone numbers and use secured websites of the agencies and businesses you know are correct. Protecting your information is an important part of Social Security’s mission to secure today and tomorrow.

 

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.