Now’s perfect time to look for bald eagles

Gary Feuz was driving toward the Mohawk River bike path in Rotterdam on Jan. 16, planning on taking

Gary Feuz was driving toward the Mohawk River bike path in Rotterdam on Jan. 16, planning on taking his dog for a walk, when something unusual caught his eye.

“I was going down I-890. There was a deer carcass that had been there for about a week, and I looked down and saw an eagle,” Feuz said.

It was, in fact, a bald eagle. Luckily, he had his camera. The 59-year-old manufacturing executive pulled over to the side of the highway and snapped some pictures from his car window of the giant white-headed bird.

“I thought it was unique,” Feuz said. “I’ve seen them in Florida and the Adirondacks, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen one here.”

Sightings of bald eagles are becoming more common as the population in New York state — and across North America — rebounds from 40 years ago when the pesticide DDT nearly exterminated them.

Mid-February is actually the best time to find the bird that is the national emblem, because resident bald eagles are joined by hundreds

of other eagles that come down from eastern Canada for the winter.

The fierce-looking bird, with a wingspan of up to 90 inches, was named the national emblem in 1782. It is unique to North America.

State winter survey numbers indicate the number of bald eagles is growing, even in the Capital Region.

Bald eagle observation locations in the Capital Region tend to be “hit or miss,” said Peter Nye, a wildlife biologist and endangered species unit leader at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

While bald eagles usually eat fish, Nye said he wasn’t surprised by Feuz’s finding one at a deer carcass.

“A raccoon carcass, deer carcass, anything that’s been hit, any kind of carrion they can easily get to, they’ll take advantage of it,” he said.

Where to see them

Nye said the big birds can sometimes be found along the upper Hudson River, the Battenkill and Hoosick rivers, usually in tall pines overlooking water.

“We do get sightings on the Battenkill and upper Hudson, but it’s kind of hit and miss. You can’t be sure,” he said.

Eagles have also been seen this year along the Hudson near Moreau Lake State Park, around the Conklingville Dam in Hadley, and in the Fish Creek-Saratoga Lake area.

“The place I’d say is most reliable locally is Cohoes Falls,” Nye said.

Cohoes Falls, like Conklingville, has a hydro-electric facility. The turbine-churned discharge keeps water open for a distance downstream, while also providing a supply of dead or stunned fish that have passed through the turbines.

But all of the local locations are less reliable for sightings than the long-established eagle wintering grounds in the lower Hudson Valley, Sullivan County and the Delaware River basin, two to three hours drive south of here.

The Cannonsville Reservoir dam in Delaware County, the upper Delaware along the Pennsylvania-New York border and the Mongaup River system in Sullivan County are all well-recognized, and hundreds of people go to look on winter weekends.

Anyone who wants to go looking for wintering bald eagles should be doing it now.

“Usually by March they begin heading back to Canada,” Nye said.

Eagles from eastern Canada generally fly south once severe weather arrives until they find open water. For a lot of them, that’s been in New York state.

“It’s kind of a fun day if you want to go up and down the Battenkill or Hudson and just look for eagles,” Nye said. “Take binoculars and some hot chocolate and make a day of it.”

The best time of day, he said, is early morning, when eagles are most likely to be active.

Numbers growing

Bald eagles are continuing a remarkable population rebound across the country from their nadir in the early 1970s, when they were among the first and more prominent animals to be officially ranked an “endangered species.”

Eating animals that had been exposed to the pesticide DDT was causing thinning of their egg shells, making reproduction unsuccessful. DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972, and their recovery began.

Now there are an estimated 70,000 bald eagles — Alaska having by far the most.

The federal government took bald eagles entirely off the endangered species list in 2007, while New York state still lists the species as “threatened,” a step short of “endangered.”

Even without an endangered species listing, the eagles continue to be protected under two different federal laws.

The wintering bald eagle population in New York mixes with the resident eagles that nest in the state, whose numbers have been growing annually by double-digits in recent years.

In 2008, the annual DEC survey found there were 145 known nesting pairs, up from 124 the year before. Preliminary 2009 numbers put the nesting pairs at 173, another significant jump.

There are believed to be a couple of nests along the upper Hudson, and possibly also around Great Sacandaga Lake. Eagle nests are now found across the state.

But most of the new nests are continuing to be built in the southeastern part of the state, with many along the lower Hudson River, from the Newburgh area south.

State officials see the population rebound as good news.

“As a keystone species representative of some of our most unique, complex and sensitive aquatic and upland ecosystems, as the eagle goes, so go a plethora of other species and some of what should be our most cherished habitats,” Nye wrote in the draft 2009 survey report, which he is still finishing.

In 2008, the state’s January count set a new record. There were 573 bald eagles counted; the previous record over a 30-year period was 442 in 2006.

In recent years, the average count has been in the mid-300s.

The number dropped last year. There were 401 bald eagles counted in 2009.

The lower count doesn’t necessarily indicate a decline in numbers, Nye said.

He said a mild winter makes it more difficult to get an accurate count because there’s more area of open water available to eagles, and their population will be more spread out, rather than concentrated in a few spots where they can be easily counted.

“It remains clear that New York state provides consistent over-wintering habitat for one of the largest bald eagle populations in the northeastern United States,” Nye wrote in the 2008 report.

Reports from the 2010 count, which was conducted in mid-January, are still being turned in to the DEC.

Birders see the return of the species and improvement of chances of seeing then as an exciting environmental victory.

“Like no other species, the bald eagle showed us all that environmental stewardship has priceless rewards,” National Audubon Society President John Flicker said when the bird came off the endangered species list.

Categories: Schenectady County

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