Would you believe me if I said there were so many Bald Eagles 50 minutes north of NYC by train that I simply lost count of the plethora of winged giants in the winter landscape? Luckily, somebody was keeping score: one member of our Brooklyn Brainery party tallied two dozen eagle sightings during our excursion to Croton Point on Saturday. Since the birds can cover a good bit of terrain with those huge wings, some of these were no doubt the same bird seen more than once. But it’s not hyperbole to say they were all over the place, on the ice, perched in trees, and flapping, flapping through the air. It was an all ages, show, too, for it’s only the mature birds of five and more years who sport the iconic gleaming white feathers on their heads and tails. Younger birds, juveniles and subadults, can look like another species entirely without the ivory bookends and with their paler, more mottled plumage.The Palisades were just a gray bulk in the swirling snow when we swung out around Deadman’s Curve at Spuyten Duyvil on the train, so I was worried we would all be stuck in a swirl of snowstorm. There was ice on the river, though, which was good for eagle-watching. Birds from further north come south looking for open water in winter, joining locals at gregarious feeding grounds (fish is their main food, but waterfowl and anything they can find will do, including carrion). Even seated backwards, I counted four eagles on or over the river on the trip up. Two perched birds were visible from the train as it pulled into the station (whew! you can’t promise a wildlife sighting, but you do like to be able to meet the advertised point of the trip). And the snow had nearly stopped. It was the annual Teatown Hudson River Eagle Fest, so the nearby boat ramp had a contingent of Saw Mill River Audubon folks with their scopes generously set up on three eagles. The small tent there had some of the daily tallies recorded from further up river that morning: George’s Island 30+, Verplanck 50+. (According to a message I read yesterday on the NY state bird list, “well in excess of 100” eagles were seen Saturday between Tarrytown and Peekskill.)
Most of the birds were distant, meaning optical assistance was a great help in seeing them. The photo at the top is zoomed-in to the max. This is pretty typical. But so are closer fly-overs, which are always deeply impressive with those barn-door wings and hand-sized talons. And at one point, we could hear one of these birds calling in its mewling, pipping voice. This is not the sound of the mighty eagle’s cry on your manly pickup truck ad (they usually use the Red-tailed hawk’s screech for movie and television soundtracks over images of eagles). But sometimes, you luck out with a very close bird. Right next to the pavilion and tents sent up for Eagle Fest — boy, did I feel sorry for the people inside the tents at that moment! — an adult bird landed in the trees with fish in talons to enjoy a sashimi feast. The stain of fish-blood can bee seen on the yellow bill here.Tom Lake, who compiles the weekly Hudson River Almanac for the Estuary Program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, tells me that the decapitated and rapidly dwindling fish here is probably a Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum).Here the bird is wiping the blood and presumably scales from its bill. I’ve seen songbirds do this after gobbling up a caterpillar, cleaning up the juice and gore, but at this scale — the bill’s as long as a warbler — it’s quite amazing.
Note the band on the bird’s leg: blue means this one was banded here in New York state. U62 is the number: Mr. Lake graciously shared with me that this bird was banded at the age of 3.5 weeks at a nest north of Albany in May, 2006. She — it’s not easy to sex eaglets, but this one was put down as a probable female — was one of three nestlings that season for that nest pair. In May, she’ll be nine years old. Average lifespan for the birds: 15-30 years, with captive birds on record up to 48. These eagles have made a fantastic comeback from the bleak years of the 1970s, so much so that the feds delisted them from the Endangered Species list in 2007. I’ve seen different statistics, with a high of over 7,000 breeding pairs now across the Lower 48, compared to estimates of 50,000 breeding pairs or more when the bird was made the national symbol in 1782. But they still face many hazards: collision (Conductor on MetroNorth: “We have to stop when we hit one.”), poisoning by lead (buckshot in ducks left by hunters) and mercury in fish (thanks, GE), and shooting (illegal, but there are still sociopaths and assholes), among others. So, almost nine years in a polluted, hazardous, developed region: nice work, bird (and those who have aided, protected, and nurtured you), and long may you continue to fly! The mighty Palisades on the return trip.