Blackwater NWR Eagle Survey counts our national bird

MD-Eagle survey at Blackwater_eagle pair 2x

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
A pair of bald eagles try out the osprey nest box in the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge. Below, biologist Amanda Bessler welcomes the volunteers to the count.

BLACKWATER NWR — Refuge staff and volunteers got together on Jan. 6, for the annual eagle survey at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The Mid-Winter Eagle Survey took place on a day that could have been colder and nastier, but 19 degrees and a hard frost were a stark difference from the balmy weather just a week before.

The survey takes place from 14 different locations in and around Blackwater NWR in the morning, for the “non-roost” count, and at seven locations in the evening for a count of roosting birds. Blackwater NWR puts out the call for volunteers to assist in the count, and attracts “birders” from around the region. Approximately 45 volunteers assisted with the count this year.

Mary Beth Goll, from Easton, is a 10-year veteran of the survey and wouldn’t think of missing it, despite the weather. “It’s a beautiful place, and I’m a birder so I love it. I just feel good when I get on the road coming down here. I get to Maple Dam Road and I’m just happy to be coming to Blackwater.”

The survey has been conducted since 1980, a year that recorded a total local population of only 24 eagles. In the past 35 years the population has been increasing steadily, and today bald eagles are a common sight in rural Dorchester County. On this cold morning, there were also scores of snow geese, Canada geese, kestrels, hawks and numerous species of ducks available to the casual observer.

“The variety of wildlife is wonderful,” said Ms. Goll, “I’ve done the eagle count for 10 years and it’s really exciting. Some years it’s cold. One year it was so foggy all you could see were the heron’s legs, so we had to do it the next day.”

A morning get-together featured some social time for the eagle counters, most of whom were veterans of the event. Following was a refresher on how to identify the birds, specifically how to tell a golden eagle from a mature and immature bald eagle.

Golden eagles are generally rare in this region, but each winter there are a few spotted. Goldens are easily mistakenly identified from sightings of immature bald eagles, but the refresher course pointed out the differences. The immature bald eagle does not yet have the characteristic white head and tail feathers of a mature bald, but generally has more white feathers (especially seen from below) than a golden eagle. By far, the most common eagle locally is the mature bald eagle, easily identified by its bright white head and tail.

The survey numbers are gathered from a count of eagles in “non-roost,” meaning active, in the morning, flying or perching. This count was from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and took place at 14 designated stations in the Blackwater region. Later in the day was a “roosting” count, taken at seven locations eagles are known to roost for the night, and this happened from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

This year’s morning “non-roost” eagle survey counted 232 total eagles; 83 were immature bald eagles, 98 were adult bald eagles, 2 were adult golden eagles, and 49 were unidentified eagles.

The afternoon count included a total of 124 eagles, including 51 adult bald eagles, 55 immature bald eagles, and 18 unknown eagles.

Every year since the beginning of the survey, the numbers have increased, and this year was no different. Last year’s non-roost total was 207, slightly lower than the 232 of 2016, but the roosting count was 127 in 2015, while this year it was 124.

You can see eagles just about any time, in and around Blackwater NWR. Good eagle viewing opportunities exist along the Wildlife Drive. Additional quality eagle viewing opportunities exist along the lower reaches of Maple Dam Road around the shores of the Blackwater River, and at the boat ramp parking area on 335. As always, visitors are reminded to obey closed area boundary signs and adhere to refuge regulations.

For further information, please contact the Visitor Center at 410-228-2677. The Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. week days and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at

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