It was another arctic day on March 1, with temperatures in the low 20s, but that did not deter a dozen people from meeting at the Saugerties Lighthouse parking lot for a chance to view bald eagles. Sponsored by the Woodstock Land Conservancy, the walk, led by local naturalist Steve Chorvas, was proof of the extraordinary lure and appeal of the majestic national bird. Indeed, the sight of a bald eagle soaring above the river on its powerful, plank-like wings, easily identifiable by its large size and white head, was a rarity as little as ten years ago. But now more than a dozen inhabit the local river shores — Chorvas counted a total of 15 bald eagles in Ulster County during a bird count in January — and the folks swaddled in hats, scarves, coats and gloves were hopeful of catching a glimpse.
After slipping and sliding along the icy path that winds through the wooded peninsula to the lighthouse, the group stopped at a clearing along the north shore to train binoculars over the frozen expanse of the river. It looked pretty lifeless out there, without even a wheeling gull to break the monotony of white. Chorvas noted that in winter, the eagles congregate along open water, riding the ice floes while fishing or snatching a weakened duck for dinner; if the river is frozen near solid — near is the closest it gets thanks to the Coast Guard’s cutters — the birds head farther south, sometimes as far as Croton Point.
We forged ahead, braving headwinds off the river that made the chill feel like well below zero. Chorvas, setting up his scope on the patio that abuts the lighthouse, its picnic tables half buried in the snow, spotted a promising speck out in the milky distance. Then a distant eagle pirouetted in the sky, settling into a tall white pine on the Dutchess County shore. Chorvas said it had doubtless landed on the nest he knew was located there, and he positioned the scope so that we all could see. After some searching up and down the feathery tip of the distant pine, second tallest in the cluster to the right of the white building, one could see it: a tiny, statuesque white head erect over a patch of dark brown, easily visible thanks to its contrast with the dark surround of evergreen boughs.
But what was it doing on the nest? Yes, it was March 1, but for all intents and purposes the river was still submersed in the depths of winter. Chorvas explained that bald eagles start breeding at the end of February (only the Great Horned Owl is a more precocious breeder weather-wise, laying its eggs in January). Bald eagles typically have a clutch of two or three eggs, each of which might be laid as long as five days apart; to ensure they all hatch around the same time, the female doesn’t begin to incubate them until there is a full clutch. The incubation period is about 35 days, with the male occasionally giving the female a break by taking his turn on the nest.