Each year, biologists take to the sky to survey one of Georgia’s most majestic residents: the bald eagle. DNR surveys bald eagle nesting to monitor the reproductive status of this state and federally protected species, which is a priority in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a guiding strategy to conserve native animals, plants and habitats.


How are Bald Eagle surveys conducted?


WRD staff completes aerial surveys for raptors by helicopter. Photo credit: Georgia DNR.

DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section monitors eagle nesting through aerial helicopter surveys in January and again in the late winter and early spring. The first round of flights is focused on finding active nests: those with eggs, eaglets, an adult in an incubating posture or evidence that eagles have been prepping the nest for use. The second round of surveys aims at determining the reproductive outcome of those nests and checking recent reports of new nests.


DNR’s current nest survey strategy involves checking coastal counties annually—they have the most nests and potential development impact issues. Nests in the Piedmont and mountain ecoregions are checked in even years, and the rest of the Coastal Plain in odd years.


How many nests were surveyed in 2020?

By the end the 2020 season, survey leader Dr. Bob Sargent and DNR helicopter pilots Capt. Steve Turner and Lts. Jaye Bridwell and Robert Steht had peeked into nearly 170 bald eagle nests, from Walker to Camden County. About half of the nests were in the six coastal counties, home to at least 35 percent of the state’s active nests.


What were the results of the 2020 survey?

The 2020 survey estimated 126 young fledged from 82 successful nests (those fledging at least one nestling).


How does this compare to past years?

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Adult bald eagle feeding two eaglets. Photo credit: Georgia DNR.

The rate of 1.5 eaglets fledged per successful nest matched the long-term average. However, the percentage of successful nests and the number of young fledged per occupied nest territory were lower than average. In the northernmost counties, more than half of the area’s 15 nests failed to fledge young, and nest territories in the eastern region of the state fledged fewer young than average, too.


What could be the cause of a decline in nesting success?

According to National Weather Service data, Atlanta, Augusta, Clayton, Dalton and some other north Georgia communities received up to twice the normal rainfall in January and February compared to 30-year averages. Totals remained above average well into March. This three-month period coincides with the nesting peak for bald eagles in north Georgia. Excessive rain can postpone nesting and cause nest failures, with rising water levels reducing eagles’ ability to catch fish, their favored prey, according to Sargent. Abnormally wet weather combined with typical winter cold snaps often results in chilled eggs and eaglets, which can also increase the rate of nest failures.


Is there a cause for concern?


Adult bald eagle with 2 fledglings. Photo credit: Georgia DNR.

Survey leader Dr. Bob Sargent said he is not concerned about this season’s poor success rate for eagle nests in north Georgia. The nests in this region represent a small percentage of the state’s total. Populations of many wildlife species exhibit fluctuations in reproductive success from year to year, sometimes wildly so, and these fluctuations are often related to bad timing of unusually cold or rainy spells. The overall productivity trend for bald eagle nests in Georgia continues to look healthy.


How can the public help Bald Eagles in Georgia?

The public is encouraged to report eagle nests via online, by calling (478) 994-1438 or by emailing bob.sargent@dnr.ga.gov. If you see an active eagle nest, observe it from afar (at least 330 feet). Human presence near a nest can reduce food deliveries to young, frighten them out of the nest before they are able to fly, and possibly lead to their deaths.


Georgians can also help by buying a DNR eagle or new monarch butterfly license plate, as well as annually renewing their older eagle or hummingbird tags. Most of the fees to buy or renew these plates are dedicated to wildlife. Upgrade to a wild tag for only $25!  Supporters can also donate at gooutdoorsgeorgia.com. Click “Licenses and Permits” and log in to give. (New customers can create an account.) Details at georgiawildlife.com/donations.


For more information about the 2020 bald eagle survey results, visit the full press release.