Eagle Excitement

Harmar Bald Eagle carrying nesting material (photo by Steve Gosser)
Harmar Bald Eagle carrying nesting material (photo by Steve Gosser)

11 March 2013:

Bald eagles are the talk of the town in Pittsburgh right now.

This month a nesting pair attracted attention at the Allegheny River in Harmar Township.  Steve Gosser photographed of one of them carrying nesting material yesterday.

Last month a bald eagle nest was confirmed at the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh’s Hays Woods.  Tom Moeller captured the pair in a morning conversation on March 5.

Bald eagle pair at Hays, Pittsburgh (photo by Tom Moeller)
Bald eagle pair at Hays, Pittsburgh, 2013 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Harmar and Hays join our first bald eagle nest along the Ohio River in Crescent Township (2012) to make it three nests on three rivers in Allegheny County.

The bald eagle’s return to Pittsburgh was a long time coming.  Their population crashed because of DDT and they’d been gone for decades because of water pollution. In the 1970s the U.S. banned DDT and passed the Clean Water Act.  In the meantime Allegheny County’s economy changed away from heavy industry.  The law and the economy together improved our water quality so that fish, the bald eagles’ favorite food, returned in good numbers.

The Hays Woods site in the City of Pittsburgh is a case in point. Eagles could not have nested there until a whole host of economic and environmental changes occurred.  I know the challenges the site has faced. It has taken 30 years.

  • Thirty years ago (1983) the Homestead steel mill closed due to economic issues.  Only a mile upstream from the eagles’ nest, that closure brought better air and water quality to Hays.  Fish increased in the Monongahela River.
  • Fifteen years ago (1998) LTV closed the Hazelwood coke plant across the river, another economic decision. Air quality improved and the river returned to its normal temperature.  Fish increased because the plant no longer dumped hot water into the Mon.
  • Almost immediately a new, larger coke plant was proposed for Hazelwood.  GASP and local residents worked to stop this new pollution source.  The coke plant was never built.
  • Ten years ago (2003) a developer planned to strip mine and valley-fill Hays Woods to build a race track and casino.  The Save Hays Woods Coalition formed to fight this plan and protect the 635-acre site.
  • Three years ago (2010) legal wrangling over the strip mine finally came to an end.
  • Today (2013) we have nesting bald eagles.
  • Update in 2020: The URA acquired the entire site on behalf of the City of Pittsburgh (2016). Hays Woods is going to be the City of Pittsburgh’s largest park.

Every bald eagle nest in western Pennsylvania has a story of recovery.  Thanks to the bittersweet end of heavy industry, dedicated environmental heroes, and the resilience of nature our national bird is back in town.

(photo of Harmar eagle with nesting material by Steve Gosser, photo of Hays eagle pair by Tom Moeller)

12 thoughts on “Eagle Excitement

  1. Kate–thank you so much for telling the whole story in this way. I hadn’t realized that the pair of nesting Bald Eagles in Hays Woods was made possible by so many deliberate decisions and community actions, in addition to the unplanned economic downturn in the steel industry. So, more than just general indicators of improved environmental quality in the Pittsburgh area, these eagles are the culmination of a series of very good, far-sighted decisions to preserve habitat at the same time that the quality of the surrounding environment was improving–one without the other, and we simply wouldn’t have nesting eagles. What a great (and very instructive) tale!

    1. Kudos to the “Save Hays Woods” heroes: Connie & Tom Merriman, and Heather Sage of Pennfuture.

  2. Prior to the steel industry in Pittsburgh, is there any record of Bald Eagles nesting in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County?

    1. Donna, I felt sure bald eagles were present along Pennsylvania’s rivers in colonial times and certainly present along our three rivers but I checked Cornell’s Birds of North America Online just in case. They said: “Historic breeding range probably similar to present breeding distribution with major changes, both loss and gain of breeding areas, in the twentieth century. Distribution reported by Oberholser (1906) very similar to present distribution. … Populations have reached recovery goals in most parts of the lower 48 states, but are still probably well below pre-European settlement levels.”
      In other words, they were here before we industrialized Pittsburgh, they have recovered from DDT, but they’re still not as numerous as they were before European settlers changed the landscape.

  3. Kate, What a great overview of all of the events that took place to prepare the nursery for Hays Woods’ Eagles. But, you are being too modest. You forgot to mention your role in the Hays Woods Coalition . You were one of the founding members and you came to the group with great insight into the area’s air quality as you had been working so diligently with GASP. You worked very hard to bring the issues to the public’s attention. There were laws on the books that protected the woods. However,it took effort by you and many,many others of all sorts of disciplines to apply pressure so that the courts would defend the forest. Big effort, Kate. Nice results- Eagles!!
    warm regards
    connie merriman

  4. Absolutely amazing! As Bob mentioned, the story of “recovery” is as much about the people as it is the eagles. I have the good fortune to work at The Outdoor Classroom located in Boyce Mayview Park in Upper St. Clair. The five hundred acres of the old Mayview Farm was saved from development in 2003 and is another wonderful natural space that could have been lost. Kudos to all of the citizens who have given their time and energy to save and restore these precious resources for our children!

  5. I saw them, I think! They were magnificent! Dang! or whatever expletive is sufficient! I didn’t see enough. I had just turned from Beck’s Run Road onto Carson & saw huge wings–and then another with a 2nd set of incredible wings! Turkey vultures perhaps–I hope not.


    1. Wow! They’re not easy to watch while you’re driving. (I would know!) Sounds like you’ll have to go back and look again. Best viewing is from the bike trail across the RR tracks. Most people are getting to the trail via Baldwin Rd under the Glenwood Bridge but it’s a difficult walk as there’s a gap in the bike trail there.

  6. It was great sharing your knowledge of these lovely Bald Eagles . I have returned to see them and am spending more time overall looking up !

  7. I’ve viewed the eagle nest in hays this morning. From the ground I couldn’t see much. But moved to the bridge itself and spotted one of the eagles fishing from a tree on the hazel wood side I observed it for a half hour. Just awesome.

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