With its sub-freezing temperatures, long nights and bleak landscape, January is a month to be endured. But when I’m walking my Chihuahua/pug mix in the morning out at Kingston Point, I often experience winter’s upside: the sight of a bald eagle.
A few days ago, I spotted an enormous hunched form perched on a high branch of a large deciduous tree along the rail trail extending out into the Hudson River, overlooking the shallow waters where the river meets Rondout Creek. The eagle was mostly brown, indicating that it was an immature bird. The silhouette of its head, with the distinctive hooked beak, swiveled slightly as it gazed imperiously over the water. Ever since I discovered the bloody hide of a large woodchuck that had been apparently attacked from the air a few summers ago out on the ballfield, I worried that an eagle might find my small dog tempting prey; but on this occasion, the bird seemed oblivious to our presence. A few days later, a jogger pointed out a bald eagle swooping over the same stretch of water, identified by its enormous planklike wings. While we watched, it suddenly snatched a fish from a heron.
January and February are the best months of the year for viewing bald eagles on the Hudson River. Measuring 30 to 36 inches high and with a wingspan that extends from six to seven feet, “Eagles are definitely conspicuous – even more so in the winter when the large cottonwoods and sycamores they perch in are leafless,” said Kingston-based naturalist Mark DeDea, president of the John Burroughs Natural History Society and caretaker of the Forsyth Nature Center. As the temperatures drop and the river freezes, “They’ll start to concentrate in the areas of open water, like the channel in the river kept open by the Coast Guard cutter,” said naturalist Steve Chorvas, who volunteers for stewardship and land management of the Esopus Creek Conservancy in Saugerties. “It’s common to see eagles sitting on the ice floes as the tide goes out, riding them down the river, looking for food.”
Not only do the birds tend to cluster, but there are more of them: Joining the dozen-or-so eagles that nest in this area are eagles migrating from the north and west, as the inland waterways of the Catskills and Adirondacks freeze over. “Bald eagles commonly migrate and winter in loose family units, often with juveniles of varying ages. In the non-breeding season, they are more tolerant of being in proximity to other eagles,” said DeDea.
This winter is particularly good for eagle-watching: DeDea said that he and others participating in the recent Ulster/Dutchess Christmas Bird Count counted 55 bald eagles, more than double the average. He attributed the high number to the mild weather and lack of ice. “Typically, these birds would be farther south, at Bear Mountain or Croton,” he said, adding that “It is not unusual to have more than 100 birds wintering where the river narrows and remains open with help from the tides and boat traffic.”
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials note that during the winter, bald eagles roost in forest stands near open water. They rest and perch in tall trees and are most active between 7 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 5 p.m. While the eagles at Kingston Point are obviously accustomed to humans, in other areas the birds might be more susceptible to disturbance and should be viewed from a distance. Disturbing or killing an eagle or interfering with its nest or eggs is a federal offense, with a penalty of up to a $20,000 fine and/or a year in jail.
Bald eagles feed on fish as well as waterfowl, shorebirds, small mammals, reptiles and even carrion. “Eagles are primarily fish-eaters, but they’ll take advantage of whatever they can find,” said Chorvas. “Common mergansers and goldeneye and bufflehead ducks will stay around in winter as long as there’s open water, and are a popular food source for eagles. We’ve also seen eagles on a carcass of a deer that fell through the ice.” He added that DEC staff had taken roadkill and dragged it out onto the ice of the Ashokan Reservoir for eagles to eat, as a protective measure to keep them from getting hit by a car.
Good spots to spy eagles
Besides Kingston Point, popular viewing places along the Hudson River are the Saugerties Lighthouse and the riverside parks between Saugerties and Kingston. Farther down the river, the DEC recommends Norrie Point in Hyde Park and Constitution Island from North Dock at West Point. Other viewing areas in the region are the Ashokan Reservoir (until it freezes) and the Rondout Reservoir, where there’s a dedicated eagle-watching area: It’s located where the reservoir is fed water from an underground portal, creating an area of perpetual open water even after the reservoir has frozen, which concentrates the birds, according to Chorvas.
Bald eagles begin their nest-building in January, well before the females start incubating their eggs in late-February to mid-March. Bald eagles reach adulthood (with the distinctive white head and tail) at four or five years of age and mate for life. Many of the eagles migrating to our region from the north are immature, so they don’t compete with adult eagles for breeding grounds.
A pair of eagles will return to the same nest year after year, building it up with more sticks, grasses and other material until it can measure eight feet deep and five feet in diameter. “Some become very heavy over time, to the point where eventually the tree or limb it’s on will collapse,” Chorvas said, recalling an instance in which a tulip tree with a nest full of eaglets came down during a major storm. (Fortunately, the young eagles were rescued by rehabilitators.) The incubation period is 35 days, with the eaglets making their first flight 10 to 12 weeks later. Bald eagles have a lifespan of 30 years, but typically live in the wild 15 to 25 years.
How the bald eagle made a comeback in New York
With bald eagles now a common sight along the river, it’s easy to forget that 50 years ago, the majestic raptor was essentially extirpated from New York State: By 1970, only one active breeding pair remained, and none of the eggs laid by the female successfully hatched, due to the bird’s ingestion of DDT, a pesticide that weakened the eggs’ shells. The bald eagle was listed as Endangered by the state in 1971; the next year, DDT was banned, giving the dwindling population of bald eagles in the Lower 48 a fighting chance. (In 1963, there were just 487 breeding pairs left in those states.) In a last-ditch effort to save the population in New York, between 1978 and 1986 the DEC acquired eight eaglets from elsewhere (several had been bred in captivity in Maryland) and had them fostered by the single remaining New York pair.
This was followed up by a program, undertaken by the DEC in conjunction with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Cornell University, using a technique called hacking, in which 198 eaglets, primarily taken from Alaska, were released at four historic nesting sites where “high release towers” had been installed, simulating nests in the wild. Although 32 of the young eagles did not survive (half were illegally shot), the technique worked, and in 1980 the first breeding pair established by hacking fledged two young. The population has steadily increased ever since: According to the DEC’s most recent survey, in 2014 New York had 254 breeding pairs of bald eagles. (As of 2004, the total US population of bald eagles was estimated at 100,000, with 9,800 breeding pairs, according to the DEC.)
The first eagle born to a nesting pair along the Hudson River did not occur until 1997, after a gap of more than 100 years. In 2005 there were 12 pairs nesting along the Hudson River, a number that continues to increase. “Bald eagles are breeding in pretty much every nesting niche along the river in our region, and have started to work their way upstream along many of the river’s tributaries,” said DeDea. “Now there are nests along the Esopus, Wallkill and Rondout waterways and their related bodies of water, like Sturgeon Pool and the Ashokan Reservoir.” Eaglets fledged in the state are nesting in nine other states and in Canada, according to the DEC.
In response to the dramatic uptick in population, the bald eagle was delisted from Endangered status to Threatened by the state government in 1999, and it was taken off the federal Endangered Species list in 2007. However, it is protected under the state’s Environmental Conservation Law, and the DEC continues to monitor the bird of prey closely, with the objective of ensuring that there is an average of at least 200 breeding pairs in the state. A bald eagle and/or its nest can be disturbed or destroyed only with a permit.
Serious threats remain, including collisions with vehicles or trains; lead poisoning; PCB contamination (which could reduce the eagle’s ability to reproduce); ensnarement or electrocution by power lines; habitat loss by commercial, industrial and residential development; timber harvest of mature trees; and disturbance of breeding pairs by boat traffic or other human activity. Birdwatchers should take care and “never knowingly approach nesting eagles,” said DeDea. “Hens are incubating their eggs well before the springlike weather arrives, and being bumped off the nest and exposing the eggs to the elements could be catastrophic.”
Nonetheless, naturalists are optimistic. “I think this is a bird that will be able to hold its own,” said Chorvas. Does the same hold true for my Chihuahua mix, should a bald eagle decide to make a move? “I don’t think [bald eagles] would be so brazen to swoop down and grab your pooch while you were out for a walk,” said DeDea. “That being said, I’ve personally seen them catch everything from ducks to muskrats to snakes to large fish – bigger than a Chihuahua.”
A full schedule of bird and nature walks offered by Mark DeDea, Steve Chorvas and other naturalists through the John Burroughs Natural History Society can be found at http://jbnhs.org. The walks begin in January and run throughout the year. Starting in late March, the Esopus Creek Conservancy will also sponsor nature walks; visit www.esopuscreekconservancy.org for a schedule.