A Kansas comeback: 30 years ago, bald eagles began population resurgence in Lawrence

photo by: Michael A. Watkins

An adult bald eagle, left, sits on a branch overlooking a nest where a 7-week old eaglet is surveying Clinton Lake, where bald eagles first began a resurgence in Kansas.

About three decades ago, a remarkable ecological comeback started in Lawrence, local eagle biologist Mike Watkins said.

For decades, Kansas had not documented a nesting location for bald eagles within its borders. But in 1989, a fisherman reported seeing America’s national bird in the Lawrence area at Clinton Lake.

“I was skeptical,” said Watkins, who served as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wildlife biologist at the time. “Sure enough, a pair of bald eagles built a nest in some timber that had been flooded (in the lake).”

That pair of bald eagles seen in Lawrence was the first the state had recorded since the turn of the 20th century, and the state’s population of the majestic bird has only grown since, said Watkins, who now tracks eagles for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

photo by: David Rhoades

Mike Watkins, left, a former wildlife biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, holds the first juvenile bald eagle trapped at Clinton Lake in 1989. Watkins caught the eagle to place an identification band on it for conservation research. Mike Lockhart, right, cradles an adult female bald eagle he used as a decoy to lure the juvenile eagle into the trap set.

Next year, 2019, will be the 30th anniversary of bald eagles making a Kansas comeback, growing from the single bald eagle nesting pair in 1989 to 137 active nesting pairs today, Watkins said. Four of those nests are near Clinton Lake.

“They are likely year-round because they are seen on and off all summer,” Watkins said of the Clinton Lake eagles.

The bald eagle was able to make a comeback in Kansas because of conservation efforts throughout the country, Watkins said.

photo by: Michael A. Watkins

A female bald eagle sits in a nest built in timber in Clinton Lake. The nest is one of four in Clinton Lake.

In the 1960s, the bald eagle was close to extinction because of habitat destruction, hunting, and the use of DDT, a pesticide that poisoned their food sources. The bird was named an endangered species in 1967 and the pesticide was also outlawed, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Shortly after, the populations in the U.S. began to grow again and the bald eagle was officially removed from the Endangered Species Act in June 2007.

Additionally, the choice to leave the timber in flooded Kansas reservoirs also helped the birds, as nests were built in them, Watkins said.

Although the bird is no longer listed as an endangered species, it is still protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, a federal law that prohibits the hunting, transportation, possession, sale or purchase of the bird, whether it is dead or alive. The Migratory Bird Treaty and the Lacey Act also provide similar protections for the eagles.

Watkins said the conservation effort was a clear success.

“It’s an extremely inspiring story to think that the bird was on the endangered species list and they have rebounded well because of the positive things man has done,” Watkins said. “It’s a pretty significant achievement to get a population to rebound.”

photo by: Michael A. Watkins

An adult bald eagle soars through the sky near Clinton Lake, just outside of Lawrence.

While eight eagles make Lawrence home year-round, many more may be passing through the area this winter, heading south for the season. Watkins said 2,500 to 3,000 eagles can be seen in Kansas during the winter.

January is considered the best time to view eagles in Kansas, with many state parks hosting events to learn more and to assist in spotting them in the wild.

In Lawrence, The Jayhawk Audubon Society will host the 23rd annual Kaw Valley Eagles Day on Jan. 19. The event will begin at 8:30 a.m. at Billy Mills Middle School, 2734 Louisiana St.

Watkins will give presentations on the history of bald eagles in Kansas during the event. Other presentations will include the showing of live bald and golden eagles and other animals.

Those who attend the event will also have the chance to see the eagles’ habitats on Clinton Lake during field trips in the morning and the afternoon.

The event is free and open to the public.

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