By MAUREEN PICHÉ
Don’t be surprised if you spot our nation’s symbol flying overhead this spring. The bald eagle population is rising in St. Lawrence County, according to state Department of Conservation counts.
Local eagle sightings recently have been reported at Blake Falls Reservoir and Sevey’s Corners, both in Colton, and in Cranberry Lake. Statewide, the number of breeding pairs totaled 173 in 2010, Fish & Wildlife Technician Blanche Town said. Locally, there are 15 pairs nesting in St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Herkimer counties. Two new nests have been confirmed in the region in the last month, one in St. Lawrence County and one in Herkimer County.
“This compares to 1976, when there was only one known breeding pair in the entire state and locally, as recently as 1989, there was only one eagle nest in our five county region,” Town said.
Two of the eagle’s greatest enemies, hunters and toxic sprays, are no longer contributing to its once-near extinction. Bald eagle numbers have been increasing steadily since the national ban on DDT in 1972, and the federal Endangered Species Act.
DDT, an insecticide once widely used by farmers and to control the mosquito population, made eagle eggshells too soft to protect the embryos.
The Endangered Species Act dealt out stiff fines to those who captured or killed bald eagles. The bird has since been “delisted” but remains protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Mankind also had to lend a helping hand, Town said.
N.Y. State's Bald Eagle Reintroduction Project, carried out between 1976 and 1988, imported 198 eagles into the state. Young eaglets were taken from nests in Wisconsin and Alaska and “hacked” at historic bald eagle nest locations in the state.
“Without this legislation and these efforts, we would not be seeing the increased numbers,” Town said.
And if you feel as though you’re hearing about more and more sightings each year, that’s because the numbers are expected to continue climbing, she said.
“Bald eagle sightings are becoming much more common. The number and frequency of bald eagle observations is on the rise. We don't have extensive historical records to document what the population density may have been prior to their decline, but we can expect the population to continue to grow,” she said. “While not every sighting needs to be reported, banded or wing-tagged birds, adult bald eagles (white head and tail), observed between mid April and mid June and four or more birds seen in the same location in late afternoon are all of interest.”
Bald eagles typically nest in mature trees in forested areas near lakes, rivers and wetlands where there is suitable forage and little human disturbance, Town explained.
During the winter months, the state's bald eagle population increases several times over, as eagles travel from the far north of Canada in search of open water where they can continue to fish. During the winter, our largest concentration of bald eagles in the region is found along the St. Lawrence River.
The raptors live for a remarkably long time—up to 30 years—and are creatures of habit, tending to winter and nest in the same places each year. They also mate for life. Which means if you spot an eagle pair in your backyard this year, you’ll likely see them for many years to come.
You might see an eagle and not even know it. The bald eagle doesn’t get its distinctive white head and tail and dark body until 5 years of age, Town said. Younger eagles have more of an all-over dark brown coloring.
The size of the bird and the angle of the wings in flight are the best features to focus on to distinguish eagles from other avian species, she said. The wings form a T, not a V.
This wet, cold spring isn’t optimum for their continued growth, however.
Bald eagles begin nesting relatively early in the spring and can be easily impacted by cold, wet weather, causing them to be unsuccessful in their nesting attempt, Town said. Bald Eagles produce from one to three young in a successful nesting year.
“Our resident birds will stay on their nesting territory if open water and food are abundant,” she said. Bald eagles are primarily fish eaters, but they are opportunistic feeders as well, meaning they will feed on carrion, if necessary.
During the winter months, the state’s bald eagle population increases several times over, as eagles travel from the far north of Canada in search of open water where they can continue to fish. The St. Lawrence River is the second largest wintering area in the state.