SNOW HILL, Md. (AP) -- When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, bald eagles had nearly disappeared from most of the United States. The lower 48 states were home to barely 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles, due primarily to widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
Once DDT was banned in 1972, the population of bald eagles rebounded rapidly. In 2007, the U.S. Department of the Interior removed bald eagles from the Endangered Species List, reporting more than 10,000 nesting pairs, a 25-fold increase.
"One of the greatest things you'll ever see in nature is the bald eagle," said Jim Rapp, a wildlife advocate and former director of the Salisbury Zoo. "Even though there's a lot more around than there were 40 years ago, it's still a thrill to see them."
Which works out for Delmarva residents, considering Maryland is one of the very best places in the United States to see bald eagles.
"Maryland is either third or fourth in the nation for bald eagle nesting production," Rapp said. "You can attribute it to protected open space. Their preference is for large open marshes. They love the tall loblolly pine trees that grow around here where they can keep an eye on things, and clean water. So the fact that you have nesting sites, the tall trees near the water, food resources -- you couldn't design a better place in the world for bald eagles than the Chesapeake and coastal bays."
The birds make appearances on the peninsula after their other homes become too cold for habitation.
"The migratory eagles come down from the north," said John Riggi, captain of The Bay Queen, a Pocomoke River sightseeing vessel beginning its annual bald eagle cruises. "They spend the winter with us. Once the rivers and lakes start to freeze (up north) and their food supply shuts down, the eagles start to move down. The Pocomoke River doesn't freeze because it's brackish and because of the depth of it. There's always food for the eagles, so they stay here."
Bald eagles start nesting in January or February. Eagles lay one to four eggs a year, and incubation is about 30 days. Their nests can weigh more than a ton, and the eagles will generally come back to the same nest every year. Life expectancy for bald eagles in the wild is anywhere from 20 to 30 years.
There are several prime spots for eagle viewing on the Lower Eastern Shore, and January is one of the best times of the year.
"Bald eagle central is Blackwater Wildlife Refuge," Rapp said. Large concentrations of eagles are also found on the bays behind Assateague Island, as well as along the Pocomoke and Nanticoke rivers.
On Saturdays in January, Pocomoke River State Park hosts ranger talks on bald eagles and guided river cruises to view the birds in nature.
On a recent Saturday in January in a pavilion by the river, DNR park ranger Angela Pease spoke to 25 bird enthusiasts about bald eagles, their habitat and how to recognize them in the sky. She brought out two large birds -- a turkey vulture and a golden eagle -- both part of the DNR Scales and Tails program, which rescues injured birds, heals them and makes those that can't be released into the wild part of its educational programming.
After the 20-minute talk, the DNR park rangers and naturalists and visiting eagle watchers boarded the Bay Queen to cruise the Pocomoke River looking for eagles. Equipped with long-lens cameras and DNR-supplied binoculars, all eyes turned to the sky and tree tops as the Bay Queen headed up the river from Shad Landing.
Randy Stadler of Manokin had been on the eagle cruise the previous year and had taken a photograph with nine bald eagles in one shot. He was looking forward to more of the same.
The Pocomoke River was like glass, and the leafless trees made spotting the eagles easy.
The first bald eagle was sighted only a few minutes into the cruise, perched on a high treetop, looking for dinner. Spooked by the boat's engines, it soared off its perch and into the dense thicket of trees.
Late afternoon is a good time to spot the eagles since they can't see at night and are coming "home to roost. It gives us a good opportunity to see them close up," Pease said.
Riggi piloted the Bay Queen up the river, cutting the engines whenever a large gathering of bald eagles was spotted. The eagles watched the people on the boat as the people on the boat watched the eagles. At one point, a white-headed eagle swooped down from its high vantage point, pulled a wriggling fish out of the river and carried it off into the forest.
When the boat reached Milburn Landing -- a hot spot for eagle viewing -- more than a dozen mature and juvenile bald eagles looked down from the tree tops, then took off to soar in a dance across the white winter sky.
As the sun set and the light faded, Riggi turned the Bay Queen around and headed back to Shad Landing. He estimated the eagle watchers had spotted more than 60 bald eagles that day.
On Jan. 10, Blackwater Wildlife Refuge held its annual eagle count. Amanda Bessler, wildlife biologist at the refuge, reported the number of eagles was down about 15 percent this year, with watchers counting 273 birds. That compares to the highest count of 367 eagles in 2011 and the lowest count of 74 eagles in 1980.
Bald eagle watchers are warned to observe but not to touch or approach the birds. The Bald Eagle Protection Act passed in 1940 makes it illegal to disturb the birds or even possess their feathers. Fines can be as large as $200,000 with a year in prison.
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/