Bald Eagles in the Hudson Valley

A bald eagle soars across the water at Little Stony Point. It's distinctive white head and tail can be seen from afar. Photo by Emma VanDelinder

A bald eagle soars across the water at Little Stony Point. It’s distinctive white head and tail can be seen from afar.
Photo by Emma VanDelinder

If there was one bird in the United States that any person of any age could recognize, it would be the Bald Eagle. It’s scientific name Haliaeetus leucocephalus              (hah-lee-ay-EET-us         loo-coh-SEH-fah-lus), has the Latin meaning “the sea eagle with the white head”. This eagle is a large bird that you wouldn’t expect to disappear from any region, let alone the Hudson Valley. It’s large river with abundant fish as well as large, strong trees provide great nesting sites for the eagles to thrive. So what happened to these patriotic beauties? Not long ago, in 1976, there was only one pair of nesting bald eagles in New York State. The destructive killing from humans, harmful chemicals, and competition for safe nesting all caused the decline of these birds.

An insecticide, DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane), was widely used in this region of NY. This caused many problems as it would be captured in runoff and would enter streams and rivers affecting aquatic life. The EPA realized the toxic affects it caused and banned its use in 1972. Bald eagle’s main source of food are fish. The DDT bioaccumulated within their food chain, not affecting the fish or the adult bird that ate the fish, but it affected the bird’s offspring. Because of the DDT, the eggs of the eagles had extremely thin shells, not allowing enough time for incubation.

A hacking platform created for the young bald eagles before they were ready to fledge.

The DEC took a stand and created the Bald Eagle Restoration Project in 1976 with a goal of having 10 nesting pairs of bald eagles in NYS by 1990. To achieve this goal, the DEC took young bald eagles from Alaska and placed them in active nests for the adult eagles to raise. The DEC also created a fake nesting platform where young eagles were placed without adult eagles present and minimal human contact, a process called “hacking“. Both methods were remarkably successful and by 1988 the DEC had achieved their goal of 10 nesting pairs. In 1997, a nesting pair produced the first eagle born on the Hudson River in more than 100 years! The continued protection effort thanks to New York’s Endangered Species Program and the EPA’s Endangered Species Act of 1973 helped the eagles get to the numbers NY has today, which is more then 170 nesting pairs.

A juvenile bald eagle. All brown without the white head or tail.

Appreciating the beauty of bald eagles is possible today because of these efforts. There are some important things you may want to know in order to get a good chance of seeing a bald eagle. First of all, the best times to see them is from 7-9am and  4-5pm. You may think these birds are easy to identify, but did you know that before the age of 5 they do not have the distinctive white head or tail? They are entirely brown and often confused with the turkey vulture. A bald eagle’s wingspan usually ranges from 6-7 feet. Bald eagles eat mainly fish, one of their favorite food being the american eel. They also eat carrion (road kill) along roads or train tracks. In the winter months, you will often see them grabbing fish from the water near power plant discharge pipes. The water being discharged into the river is usually warmer, preventing ice from forming and leaving an opening in the river for eagles.

A bald eagle nest.

As for their home, they look for large strong trees, such as white pine, because their nests are built upon each year (decorated), and can weigh up to 2 tons! When the nest is ready and the eggs are laid, about 35 days later the eggs hatch. At 12 weeks of age, the young bald eagles are ready to fledge (fly from the nest). Once an eagle finds a mate, they stay with them and mate for life, about 30 years. The pair always returns to the same nesting territory once it finds one.

Click to listen to the bald eagle!

Knowing now how these amazing creatures have made quite the comeback, what can you do to help continue their success? First, always appreciate these birds from afar. They can be territorial and they like their space. A local park in the Hudson Valley, Denning’s Point State Park, actually closes down during the winter months for the bald eagles that migrate there and nest. Never throw anything at an eagle or it’s nest to get a picture; harassing, disturbing, or injuring a bald eagle is a $20,000 and/or one year in jail. Our national symbol had a dramatic decline, but thanks to the research and efforts of the EPA and the DEC, they have returned to the Hudson Valley and they are here to stay.