The midwinter count of South Carolina's bald eagle population starts next week.
The annual survey counts the pairs, nests and young of the once-endangered, majestic raptor.
More than 220 breeding pairs of the eagle were counted in South Carolina last year, more than 20 along the Cooper River alone. More than 300 chicks hatched during the past two years.
The nesting numbers still climb modestly year to year after a decade of huge, heartening growth for the iconic species that had been all but wiped out in the lower 48 states.
But overall, the number of bald eagles in the state dipped slightly last year, and is not really growing.
Most of the eagles are found in coastal counties, where the S.C. Department of Natural Resources survey report for 2007 cites management challenges associated with widespread, rapid development.
"It's purely a matter of available habitat to support the birds, I think. We're getting near that. I'd love to be proved wrong," said Jim Elliott, director of the International Center for Birds of Prey rehabilitation facility in Awendaw. But the best historic number of nests counted is 500, he said. The best that can be expected today is 250 to 275.
"We're just not going to get back to that (historic high) point," Elliott said. "They're just not making any more habitat."
The bald eagle, the national symbol, is one of the great birds in the wild. Its wings stretch as wide as 8 feet. Its glaring eyes are said to be so keen that if you had them, you could read a newspaper headline a mile away. It can fly at highway speeds.
Targeted by hunters as a scavenger and susceptible to the widespread use of pesticides such as DDT, the raptor had all but disappeared in the lower 48 by the 1960s. In South Carolina, numbers dropped to 13 breeding pairs.
The bird became the featured species of the federal endangered species program, and its comeback was heralded as the signature success of the program. The raptor was removed from the list earlier this year.
The bald eagle still is protected by state statutes, and a federal law passed by Congress in 1940 that makes it illegal to kill them. But the bird has lost some habitat protection provided by the endangered species designation.
Nobody knows what impact that will have, Elliott said.
Residents who spot active eagle nests or recently have seen adult eagles carrying sticks or other nesting material are asked to contact any Department of Natural Resources office, said Tom Murphy, wildlife biologist, who is the state coordinator for the count.