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From the December 2005 Conservationist

Eagle Watching

By Melissa Albino

The bald eagleThe bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is one of New York State's most impressive residents and the only eagle found solely in North America. The sight of one of these majestic birds soaring against a bright blue sky is enough to make anyone pause.

Fortunately, this sight is becoming increasingly common.

With a length of 30 inches, a brilliant white head and tail, and a wingspan of up to 84 inches (seven feet) this bird is hard to miss. Juveniles lack the distinguishing white feathers of the adults, but are brown with varying degrees of white spots on their body, tail and underwings. Individuals reach maturity and develop the adult plumage at about five years old. Eagles weigh between 8 and 14 pounds; females are slightly larger and heavier than males. Bald eagles are also remarkably long lived birds and have been known to live for 30 years in the wild.

Humans' relationship with the bald eagle has been a rocky one. We adopted the bald eagle as our national symbol in 1782 for its perceived strength, much to the chagrin of Benjamin Franklin. He felt the eagle was of "bad moral character" and thought the wild turkey would be a better choice.

Eagle populations were decimated by widespread use of pesticides and habitat destruction. By the 1960s, bald eagles had been nearly extirpated from New York State. Bald eagles were also erroneously thought to be a threat to livestock, and many were killed. In reality, bald eagles feed mainly on fish. Their excellent vision allows them to spot a fish in the water from as much as a mile away. Eagles can only carry about 5 pounds in flight, and eagles have drowned trying to carry off a fish that was too heavy. In winter, eagles will also eat mammals, waterfowl and carrion.

Bald eagles first received specific protection in 1940. The Bald Eagle Protection Act prevented the killing, possession or trade of the national symbol. Eagles are also protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act. They were officially listed as federally endangered in 1978. In 1995 the bald eagle was upgraded to threatened status, a testament to its remarkable comeback.

In 1976, DEC began its bald eagle restoration program using a technique called "hacking." This technique involved taking eaglets from wild nests and transporting them to a release site where they were raised in artificial nests. The hope was that when the eagles matured, they would return to the area where they were raised to nest and become breeding birds. This program proved to be a huge success and served as a model for reestablishment programs around the country. The program ended in 1989 when state biologists determined that the released birds were reproducing successfully on their own and could continue the growth of New York's population naturally. New York now boasts 94 nesting pairs throughout the state.

Eagles generally choose to nest in large trees near water and pairs will remain together until one partner dies. They will often use the same nest year after year, adding to it each breeding season. The typical nest averages five feet in diameter, but after repeated use it may exceed eight feet in depth and weigh more than a ton. Nesting pairs generally produce one or two eggs a year. The incubation period is about 35 days and eggs generally hatch in late April or in May.

An eagle watcher in the Mongaup blind

Although you can see bald eagles in New York at any time of year, some of the best opportunities are in winter. As lakes and rivers begin to freeze in northern latitudes, eagles leave their breeding grounds in search of open water. Because New York provides significant amounts of open water and food, our winter eagle population swells to more than 300 birds, making the chilliest months of the year the best for eagle viewing.

Eagles require open water to find food. There are many sites across the state that provide ideal winter habitat and also afford excellent views of these creatures. The main sites are along the Upper Delaware River, the Hudson and the St. Lawrence Rivers. For specific viewing locations, see the "If You Go" box at the end of this article.

If you decide to brave the cold and try your luck, please keep these points in mind:

Remain inside your vehicle. People on foot disturb eagles and cause them to fly.
Refrain from loud noises, honking horns, slamming doors, etc.
Leave your pets at home.
Don't try to make the birds fly. (This is considered harassment!)
Respect private property and restricted areas.
Eagle sightings are more likely in the morning or at dusk when they are most active.
Bring binoculars and/or a spotting scope with a window mount.

Remember: harassing, disturbing or injuring a bald eagle is a federal offense and carries a penalty of up to $20,000 and/or one year in jail.

Generally, sightings of bald eagles needn't be reported, but there are certain times when you should notify authorities. According to DEC's Endangered Species Unit, if you see more than four eagles after 3 PM, if you observe eagles with colored leg bands, if you observe an injured or dead bird, if you spot a nest, or if you observe anyone harassing, disturbing or harming an eagle, you should notify your regional DEC office. In any case, count yourself lucky to be one of the few who has seen our national symbol in the wild.

For further reading, see: Where Eagles Soar... In New York State in the December 1996 issue of the Conservationist. You may also find more information by visiting DEC's website at http://www.dec.ny.gov/ and use the search words "bald eagle facts." Read Back from the Brink in the April 2005 issue to learn about New York's other avian success story, the peregrine falcon.

Where to Watch

Hudson Valley

Iona Island in Westchester County. Go to the scenic pull-off along Route 6 south of the Bear Mountain Bridge on the east side of the Hudson.
Riverfront Park, Peekskill
Constitution Island from North Dock, West Point
Charles Point/China Pier, Peekskill
Verplanck waterfront
George's Island Park parking area, Verplanck
Norrie Point State Park, Hyde Park

Upper Delaware River

DEC maintains two, well-marked viewing areas in the Mongaup Valley on the Rio and Mongaup Falls reservoirs (off NY Route 42). There is an information/observation booth at Mongaup Falls. See http://www.nps.gov/upde/eagles.htm for more information.
The Eagle Institute also provides winter viewing opportunities along the Upper Delaware River. See: http://www.eagleinstitute.org

Eagles can also be found at New York's two upstate national wildlife refuges.

Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge
Visitor's Center, 1101 Casey Rd., Basom, NY 14013

Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
3395 Route 5 and 20 East, Seneca Falls, NY

A golden eagle

New York's Other Eagle

The bald eagle isn't the only eagle species that can be found in the Empire State. The golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos(pictured above), can also be seen in New York, although they are much rarer. They have never been abundant in the eastern United States, and had succumbed to many of the same pressures that decimated bald eagle populations. The golden eagle has been extirpated as a breeding bird east of the Mississippi River. Currently, they are not known to nest in New York, but may be seen passing through during the spring and fall migrations. For more information on golden eagles, visit http:www.dec.state.ny.us and use the search words "golden eagle."

Photo: Pete Nye/DEC, Thomas D. Lindsay, DEC