Even Ben Franklin, who preferred the turkey over the bald eagle as America’s national symbol, would be impressed with what the big bird of prey has done lately. Gary Hill certainly is.
“Back in the 1970s, you wouldn’t see any around here,” said Hill, the park naturalist at Moreau Lake State Park in the town of Moreau in northern Saratoga County. “But they’re an amazing bird, and they’ve come back.”
Hill has been interested in the bald eagle since he started working as a fish and wildlife technician for the Department of Environmental Conservation back in the 1960s. Although he officially retired from the DEC back in 1995, he hasn’t stopped enjoying nature and the great outdoors.
For the past five years, since working as the park naturalist, he has been keeping an even closer eye on the eagle, which in June of 1782, over Franklin’s objections, was selected by the Founding Fathers as the new country’s national symbol.
Eagle Survey Hike
WHERE: Moreau Lake State Park, 605 Old Saratoga Road, Moreau
WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-noon, Fridays through February
HOW MUCH: $2, $1 for seniors
MORE INFO: Call 793-0511; registration is required
This Friday, and throughout the months of January and February, Hill will lead weekly Friday morning treks along the Hudson River to help groups like the New York State Mid-Winter Bald Eagle Census (a DEC program) and the National Eagle Survey (a National Wildlife Federation program) keep tabs on the bird.
“I don’t guarantee that we see one every Friday,” said Hill, whose group meets at the park headquarters just off Old Saratoga Road in the town of Moreau and then carpools to Spier Falls Road. They make four or five stops along key stretches of the Hudson River where Hill has seen plenty of bald eagles before.
“It’s much more likely if there’s some ice on the river. You can usually see them eating fish or feeding on some carcass if there’s ice in the river. And if not, you can usually spot them along the shoreline or one of the dams.”
The bald eagle is easily discernible by its size, brown plumage and white head and tail. There were as many as 400,000 bald eagles in the country early in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1918 that both the U.S. and Canadian governments began putting restrictions on hunting the bird.
In 1940, it became illegal to trap or kill both the bald and golden eagle for commercial use, and in 1967 a complete ban was enacted as the bald eagle was placed on the Endangered Species list. In that year there were only 417 nesting pairs in the 48 contiguous states.
But because of its protected status and the decrease in the use of the pesticide DDT, the eagle began mounting a comeback. DDT, while not affecting mature eagles, was responsible for the thinning of egg shells and greatly increased the death rate of newly hatched chicks and juveniles. DDT was outlawed in the U.S. in 1972, and that ban, according to scientists, had a great deal to do with the resurgence of the eagle as well as other birds.
By 1995 the bald eagle was removed from the government’s “endangered” list and placed on its “threatened” list. In 2007 the population was in such good health — 9,789 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states — it was taken off the “threatened” list. Along with everything else the government did to help the eagle, it also sponsored a program that captured eagles in Alaska and then released them in New York and other northern states.
“In the late 1980s, the DEC brought them here from Alaska, and I was a part of that,” Hill said. “We kept some immature eagles in cages in a radio tower, and we had these great volunteers, these college kids, that would climb up the towers and tag them and feed them frozen rabbits every day. We helped the young eagles get used to their new environment, and then after they grew up and flew away, they would come back here to feed and nest. It was a great program.”
Interest in nature
Hill grew up in Eagle Bridge in Washington County. He always enjoyed the outdoors, and after a stint in the U.S. Army and some time working for the town of White Creek, he got a job with the DEC.
“I was always interested in nature, and I grew up hunting and trapping,” he said. “My father and my grandfather got me into it, and I always loved being in the woods. I felt very lucky to get a job with the DEC, and just about everything I know I learned through experience.”
On an average Friday morning, Hill gets anywhere between five and 15 people showing up for his hike. One of the regulars is Sue Pierce, a Queensbury resident who has also been on long hikes throughout the park with Hill. Friday’s bird-watching involves very little walking, but there are other times when you have to hurry to keep up with him.
“Gary’s a four-seasons kind of guy, and he may be what we call euphemistically ‘retirement age,’ but he just keeps on going,” said Pierce. “He’s a low-key guy, but if you go on a hike with him be prepared to be out of breath. He’s also got a lot of hands-on experience and knows what he’s talking about.”
Pierce, who calls herself “an everything watcher,” has particularly enjoyed getting to know the eagle population along the Hudson River.
“I’ve been to Alaska and seen them there, but for a long time it was rare to see one around here,” she said. “I’ve been going to Moreau for six or seven years now, and it’s great to be able to see them in our own backyard. You don’t see a lot of them until the river freezes over in the winter, but there’s also a different population here in the summer. They’re becoming a real draw for this part of the Hudson River.”
Jackie Donnelly, a Saratoga Springs resident, is another Hill disciple on most Friday mornings.
“It’s always iffy, so you never know if you’re going to see one, especially this time of year,” she said. “Our winter visitors tend to be Canadian and they’re looking for a little open water to feed. But even if we don’t see one, it’s a beautiful outing. The river is beautiful, and there is always something to see; hooded mergansers and other kinds of ducks.”
For Donnelly, looking for eagles with a group is much more productive.
“I’m a nature nut, and I have been all my life,” she said. “But I have poor eyesight and I can’t see well through binoculars, so it’s best for me to go with a group if I want to see an eagle. Gary is great, and on Fridays we just pull alongside the river on Spier Falls Road at four or five different spots and search for eagles. I’m interested in everything that goes on out in nature, but eagles are really something special.”
Pierce said that Hill’s eagle-watching expeditions are great for people of any age, but in particular for those who may not be really mobile.
“It’s not a real hike, so you don’t have to dress really warm and all that,” she said. “What happens is you learn to appreciate all these places you’ve driven past and never really spent any time at. It’s amazing what you can learn when you just stop and observe. You have to be patient and sit still, and listen to Gary tell stories. It’s a great time.”
Sometimes, Hill and his eagle watchers get quite a show.
“On one really good day, we saw four all at the same time,” remembered Hill. “There was a live deer stranded on a piece of ice and he was just about done in. Then the ice broke free and the poor deer started floating down the river. The eagles were mad and started flying all over the place to get a shot at the deer. We got quite a few good close-ups of them that day.”