For most of us, "the lake," be it Norman or Mountain Island, is a fleeting image in our periphery as we traverse a causeway or cross a bridge on our hurried way from one place to the next.
Or maybe it’s a backdrop for that occasional dinner on the deck of a shorefront restaurant, or for a picnic in a park.
Truth is, for those of us without a boat or waterfront home, where we live is more suburbia than “lake community.” The irony, though, is that the lake, created more than half a century ago when Duke Power (now Duke Energy) dammed the Catawba River, helped seed the suburban explosion that made this one of the fastest-growing regions in the state.
It has become a place where cul-de-sacs, shopping centers and soccer fields define daily existence for many of us.
But largely out of view – due to lack of access or because we’re simply not looking – the lakes born out of the Catawba also have been incubators for an evolving natural habitat.
Misti Sporer spends her days immersed in that world.
The environmental scientist’s job is to monitor the effects of Duke Energy power plants and substations on the nature around them.
Sporer’s specialty is birds, which is why she was stoked in early March when it came time for the annual aerial survey of bald eagles along hundreds of miles of lakes and river basins in both Carolinas.
Locally, Sporer and fellow Duke scientist Will Ricks reported three active eagle nests on Lake Norman, and two near Mountain Island Lake.
Those totals have remained fairly consistent since Storer starting doing the counts in 2016, even if the locations of some of the nests have shifted as development transforms the shoreline.
“What we see happening now is people who buy an old house on the lake tear it down and then build a 6,000-square-foot house in its place,” she said.
Trees are cleared to accommodate the larger buildings, which often end up closer to the shore, where docks and boathouses also are installed, she added.
“The rapid changes around Lake Norman and to the north are obvious when you’re tracking it year to year from the air,” Sporer said.
But lakefront development doesn’t necessarily spell doom for eagles, Sporer noted. Eagle mates are much like human couples.
“(Eagles) differ in how much intrusion they can tolerate,” she said.
Sporer has observed active nests in ordinary yards, close to people, while some eagles are spooked by passing boats. At one nest near the Marshall Steam Station in Catawba County, eagles that don’t blink at the clamor of the plant operations are bothered when hearing a human voice below them.
But as habitat disappears and the eagle population thrives (they were removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species in 2007) they still must adapt, Storer explained.
“We might get more-tolerant eagles,” she said.
One particular eagle pair picked what appears to be a perilous perch: a steel lattice powerline tower off Allison Ferry Road, near Mountain Island Lake.
“The nest has been active for three years,” Sporer said. “The eagles are not at risk. It’s really neat to see.”
Lake Norman has been a boon to birds of prey. Completion of the mile-long Cowans Ford Dam in 1963 turned what had been a river and tributaries into the 50-square-mile reservoir ringed largely by fingerlike coves, whose banks once flanked creeks that fed the Catawba.
The expanse of water and population of larger game fish make the area even more attractive to eagles, Sporer said.
Keeping it ‘eagle-y’
Duke’s 2019 aerial survey was a three-day tour along the Catawba and Yadkin rivers, said Duke spokesman Bill Norton, who accompanied the scientists on the survey.
Sporer and Ricks found 35 bald eagles on the first day during a 110-mile helicopter flight from Lake Wateree in South Carolina to the southern edge of Lake Norman, Norton reported. On Day Two, they saw seven eagles from Lake Norman up to Lake James, while the team sighted 23 eagles on its final run, from Lake Tillery to Blewett Falls Lake in the Yadkin-Pee Dee River basin.
“On Lake Norman, the day’s first eagle nest was identified less than a mile from Marshall Steam Station, at the top of a pine facing the power plant,” Norton said. “The female was nesting on one egg while the male was away, likely out hunting.”
Eagles have returned to the nest every year since 2016, after moving from across the cove when a nest was damaged during a storm, Norton noted.
In addition to compiling reports for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission and S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Duke Energy also uses eagle surveys to keep lake property owners informed of federally protected birds near their property.
“We know what eagles will tolerate and what has the potential to disturb their habitat, and we build that into our daily operations as well as long-term planning,” Sporer said. “My job is to make sure eagles get to keep doing eagle-y things.”