Eyes on the skies: Parke County bird-watcher Alan Bruner tells an audience in Clinton about the increasing abundance of bald eagles in Vermillion, Parke and Vigo counties. A watcher since 1973, Bruner said, "I've seen thousands of them." Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Eyes on the skies: Parke County bird-watcher Alan Bruner tells an audience in Clinton about the increasing abundance of bald eagles in Vermillion, Parke and Vigo counties. A watcher since 1973, Bruner said, "I've seen thousands of them." Staff photo by Mark Bennett
Like fellow residents of Clinton Chateau Apartments, Nina Tighe enjoys looking out her window to watch bald eagles soar over the Wabash River.

Eagles built a nest in a tree across the Wabash, visible from the apartment complex on Clinton's south side.

"It's magnificent, just their wingspan and the way they swoop down to get the fish," Tighe said.

She and several other residents shared their stories with expert birder Alan Bruner earlier this month, when he spoke about "The Eagles of the Wabash River Valley." Bruner's studied eagles and other Hoosier bird species for nearly a half-century.

In that span, Bruner has seen bald eagles increase in numbers throughout west-central Indiana. He counts the majestic birds and their nests, and relays those numbers to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. His eagle sightings — observed in Parke, Vermillion and Montgomery counties, and parts of Fountain and Putnam counties — have climbed from single digits in the 1970s to a peak of 628 in 2018. (The numbers were lower in 2019 and 2020 at 283 and 310, respectively.)

Bald eagles were nearly extinct by the 1970s, thanks to a loss of habitat and the prevalence of DDT, a pesticide that accumulated in eagles from their prey, thinning the shells of their eggs to the point they couldn't withstand the weight of the parent birds, Bruner explained. Nationwide, their numbers had dwindled from 100,000 breeding pairs in 1782, when the bald eagle officially became the national symbol, to fewer than 500 birds in the 1960s. So, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972 and declared bald eagles an endangered species six years later.

Indiana began reintroduction of eagles into the state at Lake Monroe in Bloomington between 1985 and 1989, according to the DNR.

"It snowballed after that," Bruner said.

Their turnaround remains significant as Indiana and the country marked American Eagle Day 2022 on Thursday. The DNR estimates more than 350 bald eagle nesting territories exist in Indiana, based on a 2020 count. A 2021 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed there were more than 316,000 individual bald eagles and 70,000 nesting pairs throughout the lower 48 states.

Bruner has spotted more than 7,000 of those bald eagles in west-central Indiana since he started documenting his bird-watching in 1973. His list began with two eagles he eyed over Raccoon Lake in Parke County that year. By the late 1990s, he was seeing hundreds yearly. Today, some nests in the Wabash Valley are no more than a mile or two apart.

"It's gotten to a point where I don't think I've ever gone a week without seeing one," Bruner said.

Bruner's kept an eye on a variety of birds.

"He's amazing," said Phillip Cox, extension educator for Purdue Extension Vermillion County. "He gets very specific." On one of Bruner's one-day studies, he located more than 700 indigo buntings,for example.

A machinist by trade from Marshall, Indiana, the 67-year-old Bruner also sells perennial plants for a living. He remembers his grandfather having an interest in birds, but said, "I never got fanatical [about birding] till the early '70s."

That's when a college dorm mate told Bruner about birds he'd seen over a weekend. It grabbed Bruner's interest. Bruner joined in the birding, and soon the two shared stories of their exploits.

"And I went on from there," Bruner recalled.

His consistent studies and sightings of bald eagles are useful to the Indiana DNR. Each April, Bruner and friend Rusty McIntyre survey eagles nests within an approximately 25-mile radius of Bruner's Marshall home covering parts of nearly a half-dozen counties. After nearly two weeks of watching, they report the results to the DNR.

Eagles like the Wabash Valley because of access to water, plentiful prey and roosting sites, Bruner said.

"The river's the key," Bruner said. "It's just the perfect set up for them."

Such resources, and the absence of DDT, have allowed the eagles to flourish in Indiana and beyond. After decades on the federal endangered species list, bald eagles were removed from that ominous status in 2007. Despite that change, the birds remain protected by Indiana and federal laws, specifically the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, according to the DNR.

Protection of the resources supporting eagles, including water and habitat, is crucial, Bruner said.

"They need to protect that, and it's all there," he said.

Their presence inspires Bruner to keep watching and studying bald eagles.

"I've seen thousands of them," he said. "You just never get tired of that."
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