NJDEP confirms bald eagle nest in Monroe

Article by Joe Sapia

On Tuesday, I was talking to Kathy Clark, a biologist who has long been involved with the bald eagle restoration project for the state Department of Environmental Protection, and she surprised me with a question:

Do you know about the bald eagle nest at Route 33 and Applegarth Road?

Wow, no, I did not.

“It’s probably been there for two years,” said Clark, who works for the Endangered and Nongame Species Program in DEP’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.

But the state only found out about it in time to monitor the nest this year. And it fledged one chick! The nest is to appear in the state’s 2017 report, which will be out around the beginning of next year. Apparently, the nest will be listed as the “Upper Millstone” nest because of the Millstone River corridor in that area.

From 1970 to the early 1980s, New Jersey had only one confirmed nest — in the Delaware Bay area. In 2016, New Jersey had 172 nests. Of the 172, 150 had eggs, producing 216 fledglings.

The comeback of bald eagles, “Haliaeetus leucocephalus,” is attributable to the 1972 United States banning of DDT pesticide, which worked itself into the food chain and resulted in fragile eagle eggs. Also, in New Jersey, the DEP has done a considerable job with managing an eagles comeback.

Since the comeback era of eagles, Monroe has never had a confirmed nest. So, this is a rather big discovery – one proving there is a lot to save in Monroe environmentally and specifically in terms of open space. Otherwise, the nearest confirmed bald eagle nests to Monroe, based on the 2016 report, are in the areas of Cheesequake State Park/Old Bridge, East Brunswick/New Brunswick, Princeton, the Six Flags Great Adventure area, and Fort Dix. The state also believes there is a nest at the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area. Another nest is likely in the Old Bridge area, but the state lost track of that nesting pair in 2015.

Despite the comeback of the bald eagle, it remains in New Jersey an “endangered” breeder – that is, in immediate jeopardy as a breeder – and “threatened” in general – that is, in danger of becoming “endangered” if conditions deteriorate.

The Monroe nest will really be a test to see what the township and its residents are made of environmentally. I have not seen the nest, but know the property it is on. It is private property that looms for development. And the nest is incredibly close to existing development and we have seen how the Route 33-Applegarth Road intersection is developing.

As Clark noted, “It’s quite built-up.”

It is unknown why the eagles picked this spot, one that is not on a body of water, for example, for its preying on fish.

Clark said the eagles look for: “Is there a foraging area? Is there a tree that will support a nest in the long run?”

Or a utility tower, even.

The nests are huge, perhaps 4 or 5 feet in diameter, 2 to 4 feet deep – with the birds adding onto the nest each year. The largest documented eagle nest was 9-1/2 feet in diameter, 20 feet deep, weighing about 6,000 pounds, according to the National Eagle Center.

This nest is relatively close to Cranbury Lake, Hightstown Lake, Etra Lake, Perrineville Lake, and Jamesburg Lake, so there are bodies of water around.

Because eagle nests are so fragile – this one with the added development pressure around it – I am not giving out the exact location. One, there is no need to get close to the nest – think of it as the eagle’s bedroom, a private place. Two, knowing the nest is in the general area, people should have ample views of eagles flying over the area – and there are various wide-open views in the nest area. Plus, I suspect the sightings people are reporting – at Thompson Park, at the Monroe Library, around the Route 33-Applegarth Road area, one even on road-kill in downtown Jamesburg several days ago – are these birds. Three, there are severe federal penalties regarding human interaction with eagles. (It is illegal in general to even own an eagle feather.)

Mature eagles, about 30 inches in height, with a wingspan of almost 7 feet, are easy to spot – huge brown birds with white heads and white tail-feathers. But it takes eagles years to reach maturity, so they do not get the adult colors until they are 4- or 5-years-old.

What can we do?

One, if you know the location of the nest, do not publicize it.

Two, if you know the location of the nest, stay away from it – as in hundreds of feet away. Photo opportunities are better with flying eagles than nesting eagles.

Three, move road-kill off roadways. If the eagle decides to take advantage of road-kill, at least it will not get hit by a vehicle if the road-kill is off the roadway.

Four, think environmentally. Monroe’s new obsession with a magazine-photograph lawn around a McMansion on what was woods or farmland only a few years ago is ridiculous.

Five, put pressure on developers and government officials to go green.

Too bad the Township Council cut the open-space tax rate. It went from bringing in at estimated $1.8 million annually, down to an estimated $900,000. Had it stayed where it was, all that extra money would have come in, without a hike in taxes, for open space purchases.

As for the Monroe eagles, let them soar!

See https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/id

See https://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/protect/index.html

Joe Sapia, 60, is a lifelong Monroe resident. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic vegetable-fruit gardener. Joe’s work also is at @JosephSapia on Twitter.com, along with Facebook.com on the Jersey Midlands page.