Press of Atlantic City

New Jersey’s bald eagles continue their impressive rebound from virtual extinction in the state, this year’s census shows.

The Delaware Bay remains the eagles’ stronghold in New Jersey, boasting the highest state concentration along the Maurice and Cohansey rivers. The annual eagle count found 113 nesting pairs that produced 119 fledgling eagles, both new records, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife states.

“That’s great to hear. I know there are a lot of new nests,” said Leslie Ficcaglia, of Maurice River Township.

Ficcaglia is chairwoman of Cumberland County’s annual Winter Eagle Festival.

The festival on Feb. 11 is expected to attract 600 more people to Cumberland County for lectures by naturalists and exhibits for children — and a chance to see bald eagles in the wild.

Cumberland County has New Jersey’s highest concentration of these birds of prey, especially in the winter when out-of-state birds come here to find open water and waterfowl.

Nearly 200 eagles spent the winter in South Jersey last year. Eagles from the Northeast and Canada come to New Jersey to find open water and their preferred winter food, ducks.

Bald eagles were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007 after a remarkable turnaround from 1981, when New Jersey’s last known mated pair in the Dividing Creek section of Downe Township laid eggs with shells too fragile to support the parents’ weight. Like eagles across the country, these birds were poisoned with the now-banned chemical DDT, which they consumed through the food chain.

The state raised baby birds imported from Canada in manmade nests called hacking towers. Many of today’s eagles are descendants of those chicks.

Today, eagles are doing just as well outside New Jersey, said Jody Millar, the Bald Eagle Project monitor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eagles are consistently expanding their numbers across the country, she said.

The agency will track the progress of the birds for at least the next 16 years.

“The populations continue to look like they’re on the road to recovery,” she said. “We’re enthused about the way they have been making a comeback.”

A record number of baby eagles this year is a good sign after blizzards in 2010 decimated eagle nests in South Jersey. Eagles begin to incubate eggs around January each year.

Bald eagles are a relatively common sight in Cape May and Cumberland counties, said Vince Elia, a naturalist and researcher with New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

A mated pair in Lower Township is seen regularly at Cape May Point State Park, he said.

“You see those two adults all the time. They were courting and chasing each other around the Rea Farm on Sunday,” he said.

Another pair built a new nest this year in the marshes behind Wildwood, the state report said.

Turkey Point in Downe Township and the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Galloway Township are good places to look for them as well, experts said.

“Now is a great time to see eagles,” Refuge Manager Virginia Rettig said.

Eagles often perch on osprey platforms in the refuge marshes during the winter until ospreys return in the spring to reclaim them, she said.

“You wouldn’t think an osprey could kick an eagle off a nesting platform, but they don’t tolerate the eagles at all,” she said.

But when it comes to finding food, eagles typically pirate fish from ospreys, she said.

While this trait might not live up to the eagle’s reputation as our national emblem, bald eagles also feed on carrion such as road-killed deer, Elia said.

“They’re basically scavengers. That part is downplayed a little bit,” he said. “I always thought the national emblem should be the golden eagle. But bald eagles are powerful and very regal-looking. They have that fierce look and they’re not afraid of anything.”