Rob writes a weekly outdoors column and covers energy, environmental and nuclear issues (and lots of other topics) for the metro section. He has been an avid angler and hunter ever since he realized he had neither the aptitude nor the desire to take up golf. He has been a full-time journalist for 28 years, including 11 years as bureau chief in Columbia County. Before joining The Chronicle, he worked at newspapers in Columbia, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. He has edited or authored three reference books on antique fishing tackle; and his freelance work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Georgia Outdoor News. He lives in Evans.
Posted January 14, 2010 10:13 am - Updated January 14, 2010 10:15 am

Where did all the eagles go? They might be right under our noses.

On paper, the annual mid-winter census of waterfowl and bald eagles at Thurmond Lake shows a decline in most species. In reality, I think they’re just a little harder to find this year.

The Jan. 7 study, which involved day-long patrols by 12 teams of spotters using boats and automobile routes, only yielded nine eagles, compared to 19 last winter.

Similarly, the numbers of the most common ducks and waterfowl were down significantly. Canada geese, for example, totaled 272 last week, compared to more than 800 last year. And spotters counted 3,606 coots—far fewer than last year.

Are there fewer ducks and eagles? I don’t think so.

Two factors that influence the survey are in play at the lake. The main one is water levels.

When the study was conducted in January 2009, the lake’s pool elevation was barely 316 feet above sea level—or 11 feet lower than it was last week. Such a change leaves much of the flooded timber and shallow waterfowl feeding areas high and dry, forcing the birds into open water at lower elevations. Eagles, which typically feed on coots and small waterfowl, were spending more of their hunting time over open water.

This year, with water levels hovering near 327, most creek drains and hardwood bottoms along the lake’s 1,200-mile shoreline have much more cover for waterfowl, making them harder to find. Several years of drought allowed plenty of low browse to emerge in areas that are now flooded. Such areas offer perfect places for ducks to feed and hide.

We also heard from several readers who report seeing plenty of eagles this winter in areas away from Thurmond Lake.

Mary Zielinski emailed to let us know the big birds have been spotted often in Columbia County near Bowen Pond off Stevens Creek Road. “Maybe there weren’t as many bald eagles at Thurmond Lake this year because they were elsewhere looking for meals,” she wrote.

Just two days before the Corps of Engineers’ study, multiple bald eagles were seen in her neighborhood.

“I live in Stevens Pointe and while on occasion we see a bald eagle way in the distance by using binoculars, that wasn’t the case this week,” she wrote. “A mature adult was flying low over Bowen Pond. Another full size but not yet in full bald-eagle color was in the tree next door. A third flew over the neighbor’s tree and immediately circled out of view. Between the pine branches, sun and short sighting of this third eagle, I was not able to discern the coloring. I only knew by wing span that it too was indeed another eagle.”

Other readers reported seeing eagles near Hammond’s Ferry in North Augusta, and along the Savannah River near the Augusta Canal headgates.

Eagles typically winter here in Georgia regardless of weather patterns, but it is very possible the cold winter may also have had some influence on the waterfowl seen at the lake.

Ken Boyd, the wildlife biologist for the Corps of Engineers’ office at Thurmond Lake, offered a breakdown of waterfowl counted during the study, which is part of the National Midwinter Bald Eagle & Waterfowl Survey conducted across the contiguous U.S. each year since 1984. Although it showed a decrease in some of the most common local species, it reflected an increase in some of the migratory ducks that may be moving through Georgia in greater numbers due to severe cold to the North.

Here are the final totals from last week’s census:
American Coots: 3606 (down from last year)
Green Wing Teal: 130  (up from last year)
Hooded Meganser: 100  (up from last year)
Lesser Scaup : 10  (up from last year)
Canada Geese: 272  (down from 2009)
Northern Pintail: 41  (not recorded in 200)
Ringneck: 100  (up from last year)
Bufflehead: 64  (up from last year)