Last updated: February 19. 2013 11:44PM - 281 Views

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When the first fall migration count came to a close, no one could believe the numbers coming out of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Surely, the 39 golden eagles seen soaring through the Kittatinny Ridge in 1934 were not golden but rather juvenile bald eagles, still too young to have the trademark white heads and tails.

The golden eagles - known for the gold feathers atop their heads - were supposedly found only on the other side of the Mississippi River.

More than 75 years later, the Albany Township sanctuary recently finished its 2012 tally with a count that dwarfed the first: a record-setting 170 golden eagles spotted between Aug. 15 and Dec. 15.

This year is the year of the golden eagle, said Dr. Keith Bildstein, the Sarkis Acopian director of science at the sanctuary.

The record was set at 2:15 p.m. Dec. 5, when the 163rd golden eagle came into the sights of Dr. Laurie Goodrich, a senior monitoring biologist at the sanctuary, breaking a record set in 2006.

Before 1934, the golden eagle was considered all but nonexistent east of the Mississippi River. But with the 39 that passed through the ridge in 1934, seeing quickly became believing that a population of golden eagles migrates from its Canadian breeding grounds to spend the winter south of Pennsylvania.

Since that major finding in 1934, staff uniforms at Hawk Mountain have featured an embroidered golden eagle patch on the shoulder.

This year's total indicates a continued comeback by the golden eagle after years of falling victim to hunting and harmful pesticides.

In the three years leading up to the 1972 ban on DDT -- an insecticide used from the 1940s to 1970s -- the sanctuary counted no more than 23 golden eagles in any year during the four-month migration period. Only in 1997, after years of human persecution, said Bildstein, did the number surpass the 100 mark.

Now they've cleaned up their pesticide act, Bildstein said. This is a success story for bird conservationists.

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