Bill Combs Jr. sees bald eagles where others see only trees or sky or banks of clouds.
He’s driving on New York State Route 7 in the Schoharie County hamlet of Central Bridge when an eagle catches his eye — something most motorists wouldn’t notice, or even know to look for. He parks his truck on the side of the road, hops out and gazes upward intently.
“I think that’s one over our heads,” he says, while watching the bird soar amongst the clouds, perceptible but barely. “Yup.” He pauses, tracking the swiftly moving speck. “He’s getting closer to us. He’s getting up in the blue now.”
Combs has a knack for finding bald eagles, and he’s also a fount of knowledge, with a storyteller’s gift for relating facts and anecdotes about the majestic, once-rare birds. He points to a small group of turkey vultures circling some distance from the eagle and narrates the drama unfolding in the sky.
“Those four turkey vultures have found something dead, and the eagle knows that turkey vultures eat only dead things,” Combs explains. “So it’s flying around kind of like, ‘OK, what have they found? What have I found?’”
The bird, he says, is immature — roughly two years old and lacking the distinctive white head of an adult.
Spend a few hours with Combs and you’ll see bald eagles.
Known as The Eagle Man, he is the founder of the Schoharie County Eagle Trail, a self-guided bird-watching route that puts visitors in good position to see bald eagles in the wild.
Formally announced in the fall of 2020, the Schoharie County Eagle Trail comprises 18 viewing sites and hot spots. A viewing site is within eyeshot of an eagle nest, while a hot spot is a place where the eagles are known to hunt and fish. These hubs of eagle activity are spread throughout the county, taking eagle-seekers to Gilboa, Middleburgh, Cobleskill and other locales.
Combs maintains the trail and also gives presentations at events, sharing his insights about bald eagles in an effort to educate and raise awareness.
He posts regularly on social media, providing followers of the Eagle Trail on Facebook and Instagram with a steady stream of awe-inspiring videos and photographs. A monthly newsletter, Tales from the Trail, is a lively read, a folksy and enthusiastic window into Schoharie County’s bald eagle population.
Years of watching and photographing the birds has made Combs intimately familiar with the bald eagles whose comings and goings he chronicles. He knows where they live, their habits and routines, their hangouts.
“A lot of it is patience and looking,” said Combs, an outdoorsy and loquacious 64-year-old whose speech is peppered with chuckles.
“Bill is just a one-of-a-kind-type of human,” said Sam Forehand, strategic collaborations and communications associate for the Schoharie Economic Enterprise Corp., one of the eagle trail’s main supporters. “I never knew I wanted to know so much about eagles [until I met him]. He brings such a level of interest and passion to the trail, to the birds, to his photographs — it’s really inspiring.”
Once on the verge of going extinct, bald eagles have made an impressive comeback.
In 1976, there was just one pair of bald eagles nesting in New York.
A restoration program, launched that year by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, aimed to rebuild the state’s bald eagle population.
Baby eagles from other parts of the country were brought to New York and released into the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Central New York, to artificial nesting platforms where human caretakers fed and watched over them until they were capable of flying.
Those eaglets learned to hunt and feed on their own, and in 1980 the first two eagles imported to Montezuma were found nesting in northern New York near Watertown.
In 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal endangered species list, though they are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Harassing, disturbing or injuring a bald eagle carries a penalty of up to $20,000 and/or one year in jail.
As of 2021, there were at least 397 active bald eagle nests in New York, according to the DEC. In Schoharie County alone, there are at least 16 active nests, which Combs monitors, collecting data that he reports to the agency.
As Schoharie County’s bald eagle population has flourished, so has excitement about their presence.
“A lot of the people I talk to, the local people here, they grew up in an age where they were patriotic,” Combs said. “They served their country — the Army guys, the veterans. And they never saw an eagle here. They were raised in this county and never saw one.”
In recent years, that has changed — in part because Combs is such an effective ambassador for the birds.
“I’ve been publicizing them so much, now people say, ‘I saw one today!’” Combs said.
Schoharie County, with its vast stretches of farmland, is perfect habitat for the keen-eyed eagles, who like to build nests in close proximity to open fields and water.
“You’ve got lots of hay fields,” Combs said. “They’re regularly being cut … and an eagle can see animals walking through them. Between the Cobleskill Creek and the Schoharie Creek, there’s fish. Animals come to the creeks to drink. There’s a rich diversity of animals for the eagles to eat.”
Combs moved to Cobleskill from Florida about 16 years ago.
In the Sunshine State, he ran country-western nightclubs — a job that introduced him to stars such as Reba McEntire, Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw.
His hobby was wildlife photography, and he shot thousands of pictures a year.
At Everglades National Park, “I’d take my camera out in the kayak with me and kayak out as far as I could, or hike, because that way I get the pictures nobody else gets,” he recalled.
These days, Combs’ pictures are sometimes shared by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and in 2020 a stunning photo of a red-winged blackbird hitching a ride on the back of a bald eagle at Cobleskill Reservoir was featured on Fox News.
The viewing sites and hot spots on the Schoharie County Eagle Trail keep bird watchers at a safe remove, protecting both birds and humans from a wildlife encounter gone bad. Newer nests aren’t highlighted in order to help the eagles acclimate themselves to the area and have a successful first-year hatching.
Of course, there’s no guarantee visitors will see a bald eagle.
“We’re trying to provide the best opportunity to view an eagle in the wild in its natural habitat,” said Combs, who hosts special eagle-watching events for “Friends of the Trail” who donate a minimum of $10.
Combs and others emphasize that traveling the Schoharie County Eagle Trail isn’t just about seeing eagles — it’s about getting out in the country, seeing some of upstate New York’s finest scenery and checking out other attractions, such as restaurants, farms and breweries.
“We hope by highlighting these observation points we can do something positive for the community by bringing people here to see the beauty we see every day,” said Steve Harris, president of Sterling Insurance in Cobleskill, an Eagle Trail sponsor.
Sterling Insurance, at 182 Barnerville Road in Cobleskill, is the first stop on the Schoharie County Eagle Trail.
There’s an observation deck, where brochures containing bald eagle facts, etiquette and viewing tips — “don’t approach eagles closer than a quarter mile” — and a map are available.
On one recent weekday morning, Combs trained his camera, which is equipped with a powerful telephoto lens, on a nest about a quarter mile away, but the eagles weren’t visible — they were lying down, Combs said, to get some shade.
“I try very hard not to disturb [the eagles],” Combs said. “I’ve got the equipment — I don’t have to get up close.”
Combs had better luck at Schoharie Valley Farms on Route 30, where he focused his camera on a tree-covered ridge above the Schoharie Creek and immediately spotted a baby eagle in a nest.
“See the baby?” he said. “See the little V, the tree right in front of us? There’s a dark bump — it’s right there.” This young bird was about eight weeks old, won’t start flying for another seven weeks or so and depends on his parents to bring him what he needs. “He’s waiting,” Combs said. “He’s got no food.”
Eagles mate for life, and Combs feels there’s a lot to appreciate in such a committed partnership.
“They’re just like us,” Combs said. “They’re dedicated to each other. They share all the duties. They nest together. They sit on the eggs together. Their only job is to make sure their young are successful.
“The more I watched them, the more I became fascinated by their lives together.”
More from The Daily Gazette: