Charles County's patriotic symbolism buffs and avian enthusiasts can rest easy: The national bird and emblem of freedom -- the American bald eagle -- is alive and thriving.
In its annual report on the bald eagle population, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources counted 383 nesting pairs of eagles statewide this year, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. Charles County, which has 53 occupied nests, ranks second in the state behind the 84 nesting pairs in Dorchester County. St. Mary's had 22 confirmed nesting pairs, while Calvert had eight.
"Charles County's a great place for eagles," said Glenn Therres, a bald eagle biologist at the Department of Natural Resources.
The vast majority of the bald eagles in Charles are in the rural western portion of the county, along the Potomac River. Therres said the birds prefer the moderate salt levels found in the tidal portions of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, where they feast on catfish, suckers and eels that swim in shallow shoreline waters. In most shoreline areas of the state, a pair of eagles are found about every three miles, Therres said, but in Charles there are eagles nesting within a quarter-mile of each other.
"Everyone's pleased that they've made a comeback," said George Wilmot, a member of the Southern Maryland Audubon Society who spotted a bald eagle Friday morning while birding in Nanjemoy.
By the 1960s, Wilmot said the population of eagles in Charles County had dropped to only three nesting pairs. The decline, mirrored across the nation, was attributed primarily to the use of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, which caused eggshells to be extremely fragile and inhibited the eagles' ability to breed. Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of such pesticides in 1972, bald eagles have experienced an increasingly rapid population boom.
Over the past 25 years, the bald eagle population in the state has increased more than sevenfold, and officials estimate there are now between 2,000 to 3,000 individual birds.
"The recovery started slowly and then has increased in leaps and bounds since the 1990s," Therres said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed removing the bald eagle from the threatened species list, but no official action has been taken. Therres said the change might come within the next year.
To count bald eagle nests, environmental officials scour the state in a small airplane. Data are collected in March, and selected watersheds are checked again in May. Several nests that are within the homeland security no-fly zone ringing Washington were not included in the state count.
Therres said the most unusual nest in Charles County belongs to a pair of eagles that set up their home in the top of a steel power transmission line tower near the Wicomico River. There are five nests in such towers around the state, he said.
"They're becoming a little bit more adaptable," he said. "My guess is they've seen ospreys nest on these towers before. They decided: 'Hey, it looks like a good space. Let's try it.' "