Massive construction rigs rumbled back and forth at the site of the Gilboa Dam reconstruction project Wednesday while a constant hum of machinery filled the air.
More than 100 feet above the noise, a young eagle hatched this spring preened inside a nest that’s been the focus of attention and caution for about two years now.
For some, it might be just a bird. But for Peg DeBenedetto, the sight is a triumph.
The baby eagle hanging out in the nest is one of two hatched there this season — the other is believed to have fledged and left the nest.
DeBenedetto, a watershed maintainer for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the dam, has spent the past two years monitoring a pair of adult bald eagles that took up residence on the mountainside overlooking the construction project.
Repairs to the huge dam are being made under the first permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation for construction work in the vicinity of nesting eagles. The species was pulled off the federal endangered species list just a few years ago.
The permit itself imposed several restrictions on construction activity.
Workers can’t use backup alarms on trucks during breeding and nesting season from Jan. 1 to July 31, and construction activity itself can’t take place within 330 feet of the nest.
Work is barred within 660 feet of the nest between Aug. 1 and Dec. 31 to protect the young eaglets as they set out on their own.
Last year wasn’t a happy story, said DeBenedetto, who has grown to love the birds she’s been watching for two years. Last year, the nesting pair had two eggs. But they left the nest and there was no sign of eaglets afterward.
“I was heartbroken,” said DeBenedetto, 55.
She grew up on a dairy farm in Greene County and lives “two mountain ranges” from the Catskill foothills that surround the Gilboa Dam and the Schoharie Reservoir it contains.
On the job since 1999, DeBenedetto spends the remainder of her workdays “bushwhacking” through the DEP’s conservation easement lands, making sure boundaries are maintained. There aren’t many roads leading to these lands. Sometimes inspections must be done by helicopter.
With a bachelor’s degree in biology, DeBenedetto fell into the eagle-watching job. She’s often called to provide advice and assistance when animals are involved and volunteered to play the role of ensuring that the DEP complies with its endangered species permit.
“I jumped at the chance, and I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity,” she said.
It hasn’t been a difficult task to ensure that contractors and construction workers keep away and limit noise and other things that could scare the birds. They’ve adopted the eagles, too.
“They really, genuinely care about the health and the well-being of the eagles,” DEP spokesman Adam Bosch said during a tour at the site Wednesday.
DeBenedetto believes the restrictions on working too close to the eagles and keeping noise down are effective, and that wouldn’t happen if the workers weren’t interested in the birds and failed to heed the permit’s conditions.
“You see it every day. The guys are excited. It’s because of that we’ve been successful,” she said.
DeBenedetto said she often gets updates from workers about the eagles, but other times the workers ask her for updates.
The birds have appeared healthy over the past two years but sparked curiosity when they moved their nest last year. Their relocation required a modified permit to mark out the new, 660-foot and 330-foot buffer zones. Once that work was done, the eagles decided to move their nest back to its original location.
Their choice of a nesting site is likely attributable to the readily available food supply. They live on fish and have three big reservoirs full of fish at their disposal: the Schoharie Reservoir and the upper and lower reservoirs of the New York Power Authority’s hydroelectric project a few miles to the north.
They need extra fish when there are eaglets in the nest, and workers have reported seeing the eagles hunting.
Not long ago, DeBenedetto said a worker marveled at witnessing one of the adult eagles’ failed fishing trips. Despite being 3 feet tall and boasting a 6-foot wingspan, the eagle grabbed onto a fish that was just too big to carry, and it had to let the lucky fish splash back into the water.
DeBenedetto sees her role as the eyes of the DEP as it relates to its endangered species permit — and the agency wants to do more than simply comply.
“The achievement of compliance is you go above and beyond,” she said.
There’s only speculation about what happened to last year’s two eggs that didn’t hatch.
It’s possible helicopters were flying too close and scared the parent eagles away. A wind storm might have also sent the adults away, or the eggs may have been broken, DeBenedetto said.
It’s also possible the eggs were “duds,” she said. Whatever the reason, they immediately started building a new nest in another site before moving back to the present spot, she said.
Though the eagles might simply be tolerating the work and noise, DeBenedetto thinks there’s more to it — perhaps they’re watching over the area they call home.
“The adults seem to be interested in what people are doing. They will fly to busier spots of the construction site to see what’s going on,” she said.
They’ve also pilfered some of the DEP’s stuff. They build their nests with sticks but line them with softer material, and the construction site has a plentiful supply of hay they’ve been helping themselves to.
The baby eagle still in the nest is likely a female because it was larger than its sibling and male eaglets are smaller early in life. DeBenedetto is hopeful the male has successfully flown away, rather than fallen out or met with some other unhappy ending.
The pair of young raptors — near the size of their parents only 10 weeks after hatching — had been testing out their wings recently. DeBenedetto, who gets a decent view of the nest using a spotting scope, noticed the eaglets moving their wings as if curious what they were for.
“They’ll jump up and down and flap their wings ... if there’s a gust of wind, they’ll hop up and come back down,” she said.
Only about 40 percent of eagles survive their first flight, DeBenedetto said. There was a wind storm last weekend that could have conceivably tossed the male out of the nest, but there was no sign of him or any feathers on the ground.
Bosch, the DEP spokesman, said the Gilboa Dam is only one of the spots the eagles have taken a liking to. The city’s reservoirs are now host to 15 active nests and about 55 eagles.
Back in 1970, New York state biologists could identify only one eagle nest in the entire state. Today, following a restoration effort, there are more than 275 active nests documented statewide.