Eagles return to CVNP after 70 years

by Jennie Vasarhelyi Published:

Viewing wildlife is a favorite activity of visitors to national parks, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here it takes on a special meaning. A generation ago, and even a few years ago, viewing opportunities were more limited. Opportunities have grown due to our choice to preserve the park as natural open space. This article updates the status of wildlife in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The return of bald eagles after a 70-year absence is perhaps the most symbolic sign of recovery. Bald eagles fish in the Cuyahoga River, finding sustenance from this river that burned in 1969, sending a message around the world of our abuse of the environment. Today, eagles nest in Pinery Narrows, a narrow section of valley north of Station Road Bridge Trailhead in Brecksville.

Eagles made their first, but unsuccessful, attempt to nest in Pinery Narrows in 2006. In 2007, the same year that bald eagles were removed from the federal threatened species list, their second attempt was successful. Since then, eagles have nested in Pinery Narrows every year, fledging young in 2008, 2010, and 2012.

Eagles begin courtship in winter and are again active in Pinery Narrows. Last year's nest blew down during Superstorm Sandy. While previous nests have been visible from the Towpath Trail, the new nest is set further back, so is harder to see. Since eagles are sensitive to human activity, we have closed the railroad tracks near the nest to pedestrians. However, we did not establish a closure along the towpath due to the further distance.

The peregrine falcon is another bird of prey that has been nesting in the valley in recent years. As with several species in this article, their recovery has been spurred by reintroduction efforts. The State of Ohio released peregrines in major cities between 1989 and 1992, and the birds have expanded from there.

Peregrines have transferred their habit of nesting on rocky cliffs to nesting on tall buildings and bridges. In 2012, a nest on the I-80 bridge fledged three young; a newer nest on the State Route 82 bridge failed. Peregrine monitoring programs have identified individual birds through banding. Right now, the male that had nested on I-80 is roaming and a different male from Eastlake is courting the returning female. Final nest selection usually occurs in April.

Great blue herons continue to provide an annual spectacle in their spring nesting colonies, called heronries. Three active heronries occur in the valley: Bath Road, Wetmore, and Mudcatcher. A pullout along Bath Road between Akron Peninsula and Riverview roads makes the Bath Road heronry easiest to view. Herons generally return in February and can lay eggs by early March.

Just a few years ago, a heronry sat along the river in Pinery Narrows. The story of this colony reveals how national parks provide a place for us to witness natural processes of change. When eagles arrived in Pinery Narrows, they moved into the heronry. The herons apparently did not like their new neighbors. Over the next few years, heron populations dwindled in Pinery Narrows as the birds shifted east to the rim of the valley above the Mudcatcher ravine. The Pinery Narrows heronry is now abandoned; even most of the nests have disappeared.

New species continue to be found in the park. A 2012 survey found an eastern small footed bat in the Boston Ledges area. This is Ohio's rarest bat, listed as an Ohio species of concern. River otters are another recent returning mammal. Their population rebound in Ohio started with reintroduction efforts. They are now consistently seen in the Beaver Marsh north of Ira Road and in Pinery Narrows.

For every piece of good news, we also find new threats. White nose syndrome is devastating hibernating bats in 19 states and four Canadian provinces in eastern North America. It was found in northeast Ohio in 2012, so we have closed public access to Ice Box Cave, where bats hibernate in winter. As with the eagle closures, this is an example how the National Park Service takes actions to limit human impacts on wildlife. By closing Ice Box Cave, we reduce the chance of human transmission of the disease and human-induced stress on bats.

Much of the park's information about wildlife comes through monitoring programs, which are often assisted by volunteers. Monitoring allows us to understand local trends and their relationship to broader trends in ecosystem health. Butterfly monitoring, part of a state-wide program, has identified 62 species in the park. Marsh monitoring, tied to a Great Lakes program, shows declining populations of wetland birds and poor but stable populations of frogs and toads. Exceptions include green frogs, which have increased, and chorus and leopard frogs, which have decreased.

We also track populations of some often-seen wildlife in the park. The most recent beaver survey, which did not cover the entire park, found 19 active lodges. The last howling survey to count coyotes identified 253 individuals. White-tailed deer populations remain high at 40 per square mile, and we are getting closer to completing a deer management plan.

Wildlife Watchers are volunteers stationed in the park to help visitors view wildlife. Make sure you take the opportunity to stop by when you encounter one. They will help open your eyes to the natural richness that is Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can also learn more about park wildlife by visiting the nature and science section of www.nps.gov/cuva.

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