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Viewing Bald Eagles in New York State

adult bald eagle perching
Adult bald eagle
Watchable wildlife binoculars icon

Viewing bald eagles as they migrate or congregate in wintering areas has become a popular wildlife-watching activity. This page gives tips for identifying eagles on the wing, tells where to see bald eagles in New York, and describes etiquette for safe and protective viewing of these wonderful birds.

Recognizing a Bald Eagle

Sometimes it's easy to spot a bald eagle. Its striking white head and tail and the sheer size of its wingspan (6 to 7 feet) make it hard to miss. However, it is not until an eagle reaches maturity at about five years that the white plumage develops. Younger (immature) bald eagles are chocolate brown, mottled with white. For this reason, it is important to learn the size, shape and flying posture to correctly identify bald eagles.

adult bald eagle in flight
Bald eagle in flight, showing
straight wings during glide

As an eagle flies toward you, its wings are held straight out, unlike the more common turkey vulture, which soars with its wings in a V-shape. As the eagle passes overhead, you'll notice that the feathers at the tips of its wings are widely separated. Its relatively short tail is usually fanned open. Eagles can also be recognized by their curved bills, clawed feet and large white tails.

Two species are commonly mistaken for bald eagles. The Greater Black-backed Gull, often seen in the St. Lawrence River area, has a similar dark body with white head and tail, but is smaller than the bald eagle and its posture in flight is very different from the eagle's upright orientation. To avoid mistaking a turkey vulture for an eagle, which is common during spring and fall, watch for the characteristic V-shape of vultures' wings in flight.

When and Where to View Bald Eagles

Bald eagle viewing during the winter months, from a safe distance and at planned observation sites, can offer an exhilarating and memorable experience. Wintering eagles begin arriving in December, concentrations peak in January and February, and most are heading back to their nests by mid-March. In winter, eagles tend to congregate around areas of open water, especially when cold weather causes ice to form on many open waterbodies. Intensive monitoring and well-documented sightings have helped determine New York's most popular eagle wintering habitats.

bald eagle in flight, wings up
A bald eagle's wings assume
a V-shape only when they are
providing power for flight

The Hudson River, the Upper Delaware River watershed, and sections of the St. Lawrence River provide winter eagle viewing opportunities. Winter eagle-watching has become a popular off-season activity in the Upper Delaware Valley, where DEC works cooperatively with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy and the National Park Service to help visitors find and properly observe wintering eagles. 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. In recent years, the number of eagles wintering along Onondaga Lake has grown significantly, providing residents of the greater Syracuse area with many opportunities to see both adult and immature birds.

Eagle Watching Etiquette and Viewing Tips

Warning: 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. Remember that bald eagles should remain undisturbed, and it is important that they conserve energy during the winter months.

The following tips for eagle viewing will help you to have the best possible experience:

eagle in flight, wings down
Powerful wing movements during flight
  • Use a designated bald eagle viewing site.
  • Scan the tree line for eagles that are perched in the tree tops.
  • Look overhead for eagles soaring high in the sky.
  • Check ice floes or river islands for eagles sunning themselves or enjoying a meal.
  • Arrive early (7 am - 9 am) or stay late (4 pm - 5 pm), when eagles are most active.
  • Be patient - the key to successful viewing is patience.

Winter is the best time to view eagles, so we suggest these safety and comfort tips:

  • Dress warmly and in layers: boots, hats and gloves are strongly recommended.
  • Bring along a hot beverage.
  • Pull your vehicle completely off the road and park ONLY in designated areas.
  • Turn on your car heater for short periods of time.
eagle in flight, wings straight
Straight wings during glide

For the safest and least intrusive bald eagle viewing, we recommend the following Eagle Etiquette:

  • Remain in or immediately next to your vehicle, and don't approach eagles closer than a quarter mile. Avoid roosting areas.
  • Refrain from loud noises: honking horns, door slamming, radios playing, yelling, etc.
  • Keep pets at home.
  • Use binoculars or spotting scopes instead of trying to get a little closer.
  • Don't do anything to try to make the bird fly.
  • Respect private property and avoid restricted areas.
eagle in flight, white head visible
Identify a bald eagle by
its white head

Report Sightings

Not all eagle sightings need to be reported, but certain observations are helpful to us in managing and protecting eagles. Contact DEC's Endangered Species Unit if you see:

  • Adult eagles between April 15 and June 15 (this could lead to the discovery of new nesting pairs).
  • Four or more eagles in one location, especially after 3 pm (this could reveal a significant winter roost site).
  • Eagles with colored wing tags or leg bands.