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Bald eagles seem fewer across southeast Colorado, but they remain at one oasis on the plains

HASTY – A great horned owl perches on a tamarisk branch, looking out to the water until noticing that people behind it are taking pictures from the bluffs. Then the wings burst, and the bird is gone.

Oh well. Southeast Colorado’s birders, including Manny and Michele Manikoff, don’t come to John Martin Reservoir State Park for the great horned owl. It’s only one of 370-plus species making temporary homes in the rural surroundings.

Manny rolls down the window of his Ford truck and asks about his favorite treasure.

"See any eagles?"

Yes, we’d seen the the nation’s symbol soaring in the mid-morning sky above a cottonwood stand. "Definitely a bald eagle," park Manager Dan Kirmer had said, peering through binoculars strong enough to see the raptor’s searching eyes.

Sorry, we tell Manikoff. That was a while back, on the other side of the 10,500-acre reservoir. He nods, parks, and he and Michele pull out their fancy binoculars and cameras and, ever the avid and hopeful watchers, they watch.

John Martin Reservoir has always been good to them, with one recent visit affording 24 bald eagles in an hour. The decade-long enthusiastswould not argue with state Parks and Wildlife officials who say this oasis on the plains is the region’s best bet to spot the winged legend before winter roosting ends.

"We used to see them at Lake Pueblo all the time," Michele says. "I’ve only seen one there this year."

In the 1990s, Lake Pueblo teemed with so many bald eagles that Parks and Wildlife started a weekend festival there. Earlier this month, hundreds of people came to Pueblo Eagle Days, wrongly expectant, while volunteers scoured the shores.

The disappearance has specialists scratching their heads. Global warming is a fair theory, says April Estep, a state wildlife biologist based in Colorado Springs. If ice is melting more rapidly over ponds and lakes to the north, allowing eagles more patches to snatch fish, why continue on the migratory path?

"A lot of times they’re just looking for the easiest place to find a meal," Estep says. "They don’t want to waste energy flying more south if they don’t have to."

Of the nearly 200 nests biologists are tracking, more than half are in the Front Range’s northeast region, with six in the southeast, agency data show. In the agency’s annual preference point publication, biologists wondered if development was to blame for fewer sightings locally.

"It can be as simple as more boat traffic, or a new recreation trail or a parking lot," said Mike Sherman, a raptor specialist in the northeast, where the Platte River is a viewing hotspot.

As curious as Pueblo’s decline might be, even stranger is the Arkansas River basin’s overall lack of bald eagles, says Matt Smith, outreach biologist with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

"The Arkansas has a lot of the same habitat features as the Platte, and a lot of it isn’t as developed as the areas around the Platte River," he says. "Still, there definitely aren’t as many eagles nesting in the Arkansas River basin, and nobody is totally sure why that is."

But Smith sees no reason for alarm. On the contrary, of the 70 nests studied by the conservancy, most are hatching at least one eaglet every winter, suggesting the species’ Colorado resurgence is going strong..

Almost 180 years after the eagle was declared the national symbol, Americans discovered they were killing it. Habitat destruction worsened since the settlers, with farmers and government officials using DDT insecticide that warded off mosquitos and contaminated fish, thus poisoning bald eagles. They laid eggs only to see them crack. At one point in the 1970s, only 10 pairs were believed to fly in Colorado.

Now, in this centennial year of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects bald eagles, advocates agree other birds deserve more attention than the country’s most famous. Smith, for one, mentions the lark bunting, Colorado’s state bird under threat as native grasslands are swallowed by agriculture.

He expects the eagles to become more abundant in coming years. "But it’s important to be vigilant and not take them for granted, and think that things are going to continue to go well. That’s when you get in trouble, when you’re not paying attention."

At John Martin Reservoir, Kirmer, the manager, enforces rules to protect the bald eagles, such as banning construction within 1½ miles of nests.

"Majestic" is how he describes the creature he sees most every day at this lonely outpost, reached east on U.S. 50, past barren fields of crumbling sheds and tumbleweed towns with rusted water tanks and forlorn railroads. Hasty, population 144, is the last community before the birding paradise.

On this visit, boisterous islands of snow geese formed on the reservoir. A Cooper’s hawk could be seen on a branch here, a red-tailed hawk across the sky there. But the Manikoffs were set on being amazed again by bald eagles.

"Whoa, wait," remarked Manny after a while. "What’s that out there?"

He couldn’t make out the bulging, black form far away on the ice. So we drove to the nearest shoreline, crossing the dam that men started before World War II and finished afterward.

We got to a beach scattered with fish that looked eaten and littered with Bud Light bottles. We looked out to where that black form was, but it was already gone, declining further inspection.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife says good bets to see bald eagles before many leave for spring, usually in mid-March, are at John Martin Reservoir State Park, 30703 Road 24 near Hasty, and at Barr Lake State Park, 13401 Picadilly Road, Brighton. Some viewing tips:

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