Up close observations of bald eagles are rare and usually reserved for biologists and dedicated naturalists, however if you have been to Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park over the last 30 years, then you have probably had an intimate encounter with Samantha, our impressive resident bald eagle. Affectionately known as Sammi, she has been greeting visitors since 1985.
Her story began in southeastern Alaska in the early spring of 1984. In the nest, her mother laid two eggs several days apart. Both parents took turns keeping the eggs warm and hunting for food. About thirty-five days later, Sammi and her sibling hatched from the eggs. Mom and Dad hunted continuously to feed their very hungry baby eaglets and themselves. The eaglets grew bigger and stronger and soon they would be getting ready to learn to fly, also known as fledging.
Meanwhile, Research Scientist and Endangered Species Unit Leader Peter Nye and a team of biologists from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Endangered Species Unit had traveled to southeastern Alaska. As part of New York’s Bald Eagle Restoration Project, they collected nestling bald eagles from 1976 through 1989, restoring New York State’s declining eagle population, which had been decimated by hunting, habitat destruction and widespread use of the pesticide DDT. On July 17, 1984, Mr. Nye climbed up Sammi’s tree and collected her and her sibling. They were put into crates and transported, along with 30 other young eagles, back to New York State.
Sammi and about half of the eagles were transported to a site in the Adirondacks, while the others went to a site in Albany County. The young eagles were raised to independence through a process called hacking. Living in artificial nests, called hacking towers, they were fed by hidden human hands, until fully feathered, when they were released to learn to fly and hunt from the towers. Sammi was released on August 31, 1984. She fledged from the tower on September 2 and returned to it on September 7. She left the hacking area entirely on September 20. DEC personnel last had contact with her on November 2 on Sacandaga Reservoir, near Northville, NY. Winter was coming, so Sammi migrated south.
Unfortunately for Sammi, she would barely get to know the usual rewards for migrating south, warmer weather and open water for fishing. She was found injured on the ground on December 27 in Woodleaf, North Carolina by a private citizen. She was taken to Dr. Brown of the Carolina Raptor Rehabilitation Clinic, where it was discovered that she had been shot with a .22 caliber firearm, which broke one metacarpal in her right wing. Dr. Brown and his staff spent an extensive amount of time and effort trying to rehabilitate her, but to no avail. Even with surgically placed pins and replacement of dead bone, the damage was irreversible. She was returned to New York on April 17, 1985, where Dr. Edward Becker surgically removed the right wing at the wrist joint.
Samantha was transported to Trailside Museums and Zoo on May 10, 1985 on a permanent loan as an educational specimen. She is a very proud and feisty bird, keeping the zookeepers on their toes whenever they have to enter her enclosure. She keeps her feathers very well groomed and always seems to maintain an aura of majesty. It is difficult not to utter an ‘ooh’ or an ‘ah’ when coming upon her. She can be very vocal, delighting and sometimes startling passersby with her piercing call. While we know that Sammi would much rather have spent the last 30 years living her life in the wild, she remains an excellent ambassador of her magnificent species, providing daily lessons on power, grace and hope. The Bald Eagle Restoration Project was an astounding success. There are now more than 170 pairs of bald eagles nesting in New York State.
Photos courtesy of Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
- Correspondence with Peter Nye
- NYS DEC Bald Eagle Program http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/9381.html
- Palisades Interstate Park Commission Archives
Post by Chris O’Sullivan, Environmental Educator at Trailside Museum and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.