Although the bald eagle is a ubiquitous symbol, from early childhood on, to anyone growing up in America, actually seeing a live specimen used to require a trip out West, or at least to a zoo. The use of the pesticide DDT, which weakens the structure of eggshells and makes them prone to break when the mother bird sits on them, had wiped out what little native eagle population remained in New York State by the mid-20th century. Thanks in large part to the alarm raised by Rachel Carson’s 1962 New Yorker exposé Silent Spring, DDT was banned ten years later. Biologists in New York State collected 198 bald eaglets, mostly from nests in Alaska, for reintroduction or “hacking” into the wild between 1976 and 1988. By 1989, they were reproducing in the Hudson Valley on their own.
Today the Department of Environmental Conservation reports that there are more than 170 nesting pairs of bald eagles in this state. Add to these year-round residents a substantial number of birds that summer in Canada and head for the Hudson Valley in December, in search of unfrozen water for fishing, and you’ll find that January and February are the peak time to catch a glimpse of these stately raptors. These days, the birds have become so solidly reestablished in this flyway that an encounter can be purely accidental and occur in unlikely-seeming places; I recently saw a full-grown pair swoop low over the strip malls of Route 9W in the Town of Ulster. But your luck will be far less random if you head to one of the known eagle-viewing spots listed below.
Some eagle habits to keep in mind before you go: They prefer wooded areas near water, with tall trees for nesting and perching. Two reliable Ulster County viewing locations – a pine grove on the shore of the Ashokan Reservoir and an enormous sycamore by a streambank in the Plattekill Gorge south of New Paltz, popular with Wallkill Valley Rail Trail walkers – exemplify this type of habitat. Baldies are primarily pescatarians, so ice floes and river islands are good places to spot eagles enjoying a meal. They tend to be most active between 7 and 9 a.m. and 4 and 5 p.m.
Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area, Forestburgh
Initially acquired for the primary purpose of protecting critical wintering habitat for bald eagles, the 11,000+-acre Mongaup Valley Wildlife Management Area (WMA) offers two eagle-viewing blinds. Eagles are especially attracted to the Mongaup Falls Reservoir because water releases by the utility that operates the reservoir’s hydropower-generating facility keep the reservoirs from freezing over completely, providing access to plenty of finny prey.
Located on Sullivan County Route 43, the Mongaup Falls blind was recently fully renovated. In November 2019 it was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ted Kerpez, a New Paltz resident who passed away suddenly in December 2018. Kerpez had long been the director of the wildlife program for Region 3 of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, including the agency’s regional Endangered Species program; he was also one of the founding members of the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership.
In addition to the Dr. Ted Kerpez Memorial Eagle-Viewing Blind, the Mongaup Valley WMA is also home to a second blind on the Rio Reservoir, whose parking area is on Rio Dam Road, off County Route 42. Both blinds and parking lots are accessible to people of all ages and abilities, and provide ideal locations to view wintering eagles in shelters that minimize any disturbance to wildlife. Visitors are encouraged to view eagles either from their vehicles or the blinds, rather than on foot.
While eagles are the stars of the show at Mongaup Valley, other migrating raptors, waterfowl, white-tailed deer, turkey, ruffed grouse, coyote, fox, porcupine and black bear are also found at the WMA. Rare floodplain forest, perched bog and pitch-pine and oak/hickory woodland habitats attract wetland birds and species that prefer sedge meadows. You can download wildlife checklists to add more fun to your viewing on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/68639.html.
Kowawese Unique Area at Plum Point, New Windsor
You may know this 102-acre county park on Route 9W on the outskirts of Newburgh as an easily accessible spot for a summertime picnic with a smashing view of Bannerman Island and the Hudson Highlands, or as a gently sloping 2,000-foot-long Hudson River beach that makes a great launch site for kayaks and canoes. But in winter it also affords excellent eagle-watching opportunities, as the big birds roost in trees along the riverbanks and gather to hang out on the ice. Check out the details at www.orangecountygov.com/1478/kowawese-unique-area-at-plum-point.
Constitution Marsh Audubon Center & Sanctuary, Garrison
This unique and beautiful tidal marsh on the east shore of the Hudson River, just south of the village of Cold Spring, serves as vital natural habitat in the Hudson River Estuary. It has been designated an Audubon New York Important Bird Area, a New York State Bird Conservation Area and a Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitat. In the warmer months, it’s a busy site for nature education programs, bird studies, invasive species management and habitat restoration efforts. Wintertime is quieter, and therefore the perfect time to go watch some bald eagles as they feast on Hudson River fish. Visit the Audubon website for a list of upcoming events and activities at https://constitution.audubon.org.
Teatown’s Hudson River EagleFest, Croton-on-Hudson
Want to visit eagle-viewing spots in the lower Hudson Valley from the warmth of a tour bus, with naturalists on board as guides? That’s one of your options if you attend EagleFest, which the Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining organizes each winter at Croton Point Park. This year it’s happening from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 8.
EagleFest’s main attraction happens in the park, featuring live raptor shows, educators with viewing scopes observing wild eagles, children’s activities, music, food trucks and 25+ environmental organizations – all in heated tents.
Admission to EagleFest costs $22 for people aged 12 and up, $13 for kids aged 6 to 11 if you purchase your tickets online at www.teatown.org/eaglefest-tickets by February 5. It’ll cost $25 for adults, $15 for kids at the gate. There’s an addition $35 fee for the bus tours, which will run between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and again from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Stops announced for this year include the New Croton Dam, Verplanck Steamboat Riverfront Park and George’s Island Park in Montrose, although these may change due to weather. The bus tours are intended for guests ages 12 and over. To sign up for a tour, call (914) 762-2912, ext. 110.
On the day of the event, there will be free shuttles from the Croton-Harmon Station to and from Croton Point Park. If you’re coming from the north, you may want to extend your viewing experience by taking the Metro-North Eagle Train with on-board naturalists. It departs from Poughkeepsie at 9:52 a.m. and arrives at Croton-Harmon Station at 10:52 a.m. To learn more about EagleFest, visit www.teatown.org/events/eaglefest or https://bit.ly/30AOuQM.