It wasn't so long ago that seeing a bald eagle was a rare treat in the Twin Cities.
An annual survey this month counted about 200 of the majestic birds along the Mississippi River from Dayton to Hastings. The 72-mile stretch added six new nests this spring, for a total of 41. It's another step forward in the dramatic comeback of the bald eagle, which was on the federal endangered species list from 1967 to 2007.
Before last year, when seven nests were added, eagles had a gain of only two or three aeries a year since 2006, when the aerial survey began, said John Moriarty, a Ramsey County natural resources manager. He counted nests and birds on April 6 in a helicopter.
"I was surprised we are still growing at such a rate," said Mark Martell, bird conservation director for the Minnesota Audubon Society. He recalls when the first eagles returned to the Twin Cities in the mid-1980s to nest in the Pig's Eye area below downtown St. Paul.
"We cleaned up the river, and it has more fish and food available," he said. "Now a lot of people expect to see eagles. That was not the case even 10 years ago."
John Figge sees eagles most days in his back yard in St. Paul's Mounds Park neighborhood. He looks 50 feet up to the storm-flattened top of a white pine, where a pair have their nest.
"They are very messy," he said, noting that the two drop about 10 sticks for every one that stays in the nest. He also finds fish skeletons, squirrel tufts and white droppings in his yard, about a block from the Mississippi River bluffs.
He said the eagles tired of construction noise when neighborhood streets were repaved two years ago and left until it was over. Last spring they returned and had their first two chicks. He suspects they have eggs again this spring.
"It's awesome having them," Figge said. "They start as little gray balls and grow rapidly."
The two eagles sometimes remind him of human couples doing home projects.
"The male flies in with a stick for the nest and she eagle-eyes him," Figge said. "If he drops one [stick], she goes nuts [squawking]. I joke with my wife that it sounds familiar. Reminds me of remodeling the house: I make a mistake, I hear about it."
The number of Twin Cities nests along the Mississippi between Dayton and Hastings has risen from about 10 in the mid-1990s to the current 41, Moriarty said. Eagles also nest by some lakes. He said Ramsey County has 13 nests: eight on the river, two in North Oaks and one each in Maplewood, Arden Hills and White Bear Lake.
New nests this year include one in Crosby Park; it's across the river from Fort Snelling, where an old nest blew down, Moriarty said. Crosby has the closest river nest to Minneapolis. Fridley has two nests on islands between Interstate 694 and the Hwy. 610 bridge. There are four nests above the Champlin bridge, in Dayton and Anoka.
Eagles built three new nests on islands between Cottage Grove and Inver Grove Heights, and four in the Hastings area. The Spring Lake-Grey Cloud Island area above Hastings continues to have the largest number of nests, he said.
Some are only a few hundred yards apart, a change from the usual spacing of a mile or more between nests, he noted.
The Mississippi nests surveyed produce an average of two eaglets a year, meaning about 80 new eaglets will fledge from riverfront nests this spring, Moriarty said. He said more than 100 young eagles, without their white head feathers, were spotted during the aerial survey.
The eagle count, begun in 2006, is sponsored by the National Park Service, Audubon Minnesota and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Park Service workers will return to some of the nests in May before the eaglets can fly to obtain samples of their blood and feathers to test for toxins found in the fish they eat, said Bill Route, a Park Service ecologist.
The test results offer an indication of the health of the eagles, fish and river. Mississippi water quality has been improving since the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. That also was the year that the toxic pesticide DDT was banned.
DDT had leached from farm fields into waterways and into fish that the birds ate, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The toxin contributed to the sharp decline of the eagle population, which fell to a low of 417 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states in 1963.
The last estimate by the state Department of Natural Resources said Minnesota had 1,312 pairs in 2005, including 78 active nests in the Twin Cities metro area.
Bald eagles remain guarded by the federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Jim Adams • 952-707-9996