Paul Zeph clearly remembers the last time he saw one.
“I was driving along the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg and saw this large bird flying toward me across the river,” he said.
Zeph, a conservation director for the state’s Audubon society, says the bird was steady, unwavering and looked “like a B52 bomber” as it flew closer.
Once he saw its white tail and head, he knew exactly what it was: a bald eagle.
“Every time I see that, it just sends a little chill up my spine of excitement, to see this large beautiful bird that’s our nation’s symbol, that is now seen everyday up and down the Susquehanna,” Zeph said.
The thrilling sight would have been a rarity decades ago. Pollution, pesticides knocked the population out. Restoration efforts then began, with rivers getting cleaned and young eagles brought in.
This year, biologists have confirmed 266 nesting pairs across Pennsylvania. The state’s game commission may soon take the bird off its threatened species list. Zeph isn’t surprised. He thinks it signals a major comeback for the birds after nearly being wiped out.
They’ve even made their way to urban areas, becoming a huge draw at places like the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia.
“It’s amazing, people come every day sometimes, just to check on them,” said Gary Stolz, with the refuge. “They’ve almost been adopted by a whole fan club.”
Stolz said two eaglets hatched there this year.
Moving bald eagles from “threatened” to “protected” status means they don’t need special attention, according to Stolz. Federal rules, however, prohibit harming or disturbing the birds.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story made reference to the Pa. gaming commission rather than the state’s game commission.