Celebrating the bald eagle in South Jersey

An eagle tries to land on top of its nestmate along the Maurice River in Millville on Jan. 21, 2016.

MAURICETOWN, N.J. - It is perhaps one of the greatest success stories in wildlife conservation - the resurgence of the bald eagle in New Jersey and throughout the United States.

And next Saturday, more than 1,000 people are expected to gather at a rural fire hall here and at several outdoor viewing sites to celebrate a species that in 46 years has gone from being on the brink of extirpation to thriving in the Garden State.

"It's kind of amazing when you think about how many people will come out for an event that is held in the dead of winter in such a rural location which has a very narrow focus," said Leslie Ficcaglia, chairwoman of the 16th annual Cumberland County Winter Eagle Festival. "But eagles are an iconic and beloved symbol of our country. And people have huge interest in them because they are such beautiful and majestic birds."

The festival is in Cumberland County because the woodlands, swamps, farmlands, wetlands - and even backyards - of this mostly rural southern New Jersey county - remain ground zero for eagle populations, according to experts. The Delaware Bay region, which includes Cumberland and Salem Counties, contains 40 percent of all the state's nests.

This year's festival will feature a variety of lectures about eagles and other bird species. Wildlife expert Pete Dunne, New Jersey Audubon's ambassador for birding, will deliver the keynote address on changes in New Jersey's bird life in the last half century, while other experts will offer lectures throughout the day.

Guided trail walks will begin with a sunrise jaunt through the wetlands with naturalist Karen Johnson, continue throughout the day, and end with a sunset owl watch with Don Freiday, of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

It was deep within Cumberland County's Bear Swamp that New Jersey's only eagle nest remained in 1970, when the species was almost extinct after decades of hunting and exposure to the pesticide DDT. The hunting of eagles was banned in 1940, but DDT continued to decimate eagle populations into the 1980s - even after the chemical was also banned in the 1970s - because the species' long-term exposure to the pesticide had softened the structure of its eggs. The eggs would break apart in the nest prematurely, before eaglets could develop and then hatch.

It was also in Cumberland County where efforts to restore the species began in the 1980s when the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Nongame Species Program mounted an ambitious project to rebuild eagle populations. Then it was a slow but steady climb that sometimes even involved removing the fragile eggs from the nests, incubating them in a laboratory, and then replacing them within the nests to hatch. The effort resulted in a statewide eagle population increase to 23 pairs by 2000, 48 pairs by 2005, and 82 pairs by 2010.

The annual Bald Eagle Project report released earlier this month for 2015 by the Division of Fish and Wildlife indicated that the statewide population of territorial pairs of eagles increased to 161, up from 156 the year before. The numbers have been climbing at a steady pace annually for more than a decade.

State environmental personnel, Conserve Wildlife Foundation staff, and citizen volunteers last year documented that 150 of those pairs produced eggs - up from 146 in 2014. And those 150 nests produced 199 eaglets, according to Kathleen Clark, a biologist with the state's Endangered and Nongame Species Program, who helped prepare the report.

The recovery of eagle populations has occurred throughout the contiguous United States and the bird was removed from the endangered species list in 1995 and the threatened species list in 2007.

It is estimated there are more than 7,000 pairs of nesting eagles in the contiguous 48 states, and nearly half of those states each have at least 100 breeding pairs, said Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

"I think that so many times when we talk about conservation, we're hearing about problems with species," McGowan said. "I don't think people talk enough about what we have done . . . what has been accomplished. The eagles are a great example of how much can be accomplished with a species."

McGowan said his organization has worked closely with New Jersey Audubon and participated in the World Series of Birding in Cape May and Cumberland Counties more than a dozen times. The eagles project is one that Cornell has watched closely from its infancy, he said.

"I think it's significant when you look at how when I started out with the World Series of Birding in 1990, it was still unusual to be able to spot a bald eagle in New Jersey," McGowan said. "Now it's such a commonplace thing, especially when you are in that part of the state."

McGowan said that while there are real concerns about threats of nest disturbance and habitat loss in New Jersey and elsewhere, his lab has found interesting evidence that eagles, as a species, have changed their interaction with humans to "tolerate" people more - even nesting in populated urban areas and backyards.

"It's just amazing," McGowan said. "But it most likely has to do with the change in behavior of humans now that people are not routinely shooting at them."

The 2016 Cumberland County Winter Eagle Festival will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6, at the Mauricetown Fire Hall, 9544 Noble St., Mauricetown. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. There will be more than 40 exhibitors and local fare available for lunch.

There also will be six outdoor sites along the bay shore region in Cumberland County staffed by birding experts where it is likely eagles can be spotted, including at the Eastpoint Lighthouse and the Bayshore Center at Bivalve. Maps will be provided for all the sites. More information can be obtained by calling 609-453-2175.

609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo jurgo@phillynews.com