Tag Archives: bald eagles

Celebrate Independence Day with Our National Bird

Bald eagles are spectacular birds. With white heads and tails contrasting with their dark brown bodies and their large size, they are the biggest bird in New York State.  Seeing a bald eagle in flight or perched on a tree can be the highlight of any trip to a state park.

Adult bald eagles are easy to identify, with their white heads and tails while juveniles (any eagle 4 years old or younger) have mottled white and brown wings and a brown body.

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Juvenile bald eagle, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The best places to look for bald eagles are near large bodies of water, such as a lake or river, where you may see them flying overhead or sitting in a tree looking for fish (or getting ready to steal a fish from an osprey).

If you are hoping to see an eagle this Fourth of July, check out one of these parks:

Peebles Island State Park

The island the eagles are nesting on is just across the river on another island (Goat Island), so there is no need to worry about disturbing the birds. It is about ½ mile (one way) moderate walk along the Perimeter Trail to the eagles’ nest. When you get to the where the trail splits after the fence, take a right and follow the Perimeter Trail until just after you get past the first dam. Look for the nest in a big oak tree on the island (Goat Island) to the left of the dam.

Our park maps are also on Google Maps, so it is easy to pull them up on a smart phone. If you were to walk the whole Perimeter Trail it is about a 2-mile loop, moderate with some rocks and roots in the trail. Below is a screen shot of Google Maps pointing out the nest location. Additionally, there is a park map at the trail head next to the parking area.

Bring binoculars if you have them to get a better look!

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Aerial view of eagle’s nest at Peeble’s Island State Park

Robert Moses State Park (northern New York)

Bald eagles can be seen fishing from trees along the trails all the time.

Connetquot River State Park Preserve

Look for eagles flying over the Connetquot Main Pond near the Nature Center.

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Adult bald eagle in flight, photo by Andy Morffew.

Thacher State Park

At Thacher State Park visitors can view bald eagles at Thompson’s Lake Campground and Thacher Nature Center, both from the lakeshore or from the water. There is an active nest nearby and the eagles are often seen flying over the lake hunting for fish or roosting in trees along the shore.  Eaglets will be fledging soon.

Allegany State Park

Eagles often fish on Quaker Lake and Red House Lake.

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Sammi at Trailside Museums and Zoo, photo courtesy of Palisades Park Commisssion

Bear Mountain State Park

The Trailside Museums and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park is the home of Sammi the bald eagle.  Sammi (Samantha) was severely injured in 1984 and could not be released back to the wild after her injuries healed. She has been living at Trailside Museums and Zoo since 1985.  Click here to learn more about Sammi’s story.

If you do see an eagle this Independence Day, please let us know!

References

All About Birds, bald eagle

Featured image: By CheepShot (Carpentersville Dam) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Raptor Migration and Hawk Watching

When we think about spring and fall in the northeast, we often dwell on the extraordinary changes that occur to our trees and other plants. In the spring, we yearn for green to replace the barren gray and white of winter; in fall we marvel at the warm oranges, reds, and yellows that are on display as our trees prepare for winter. But there is an equally amazing change that is occurring at the same time, one we often fail to realize because we simply don’t look up: the mass migration of raptors. Whether it is the sheer majesty of a bald eagle, the raw power of a northern goshawk, the pure speed of the peregrine falcon, or the extinct-ness of the Velociraptor, raptors have captured the minds and imaginations of people and cultures for generations. Raptors, also called “birds of prey,” include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, ospreys, harriers, and owls.

Raptor-watching, normally referred to as “hawk watching,” is a great way to spend a spring or autumn afternoon and can be enjoyed in many of our State Parks. Hawk watching is a draw for both veteran and novice bird watchers alike. Raptors are highly visible during their migration as they soar through the skies, unlike songbirds who hide in dense shrubs and tree tops. If you go to popular hawk watching sites during migrations (www.hawkcount.org), you will often find other observers and official hawk counters. These fellow birding enthusiasts are always eager to help you identify the shapes and flight patterns of certain groups and species. With a bit of practice, you’ll be a veteran in no time!

Migration

Migration is no joke and (as you can imagine) can be exhausting. Some species, such as broad-winged hawks, travel over 4,500 miles in about 9 weeks. Why do these birds go through all this trouble, anyways? Your first guess might be that the birds are escaping the cold. However, if so, then why don’t they stay closer to the equator, where it is always warm? The suggestion that temperature triggers migration is a very common misconception and is often connected to human behavior. Many northerners head south for warmer climates to escape the winter chill. Those who spend their entire winters in the south are even given the name “snowbirds.” With bird migrations, they aren’t escaping the cold; they are often migrating due to the lack of food availability in the winter.

Picture this (shouldn’t be hard for us Northeasterners)… the sun starts setting lower in the sky, the days grow shorter, and the frigid air from the north starts blowing. Plants go through an amazing transition. Annual plants who have dropped their seeds have reached the end of their life, while perennial plants drop their leaves, transferring their energy into their roots and stems to outlast the winter. The world feels a bit barren with the browns and whites of winter. Those plants provide food for insects and many small mammals. When the plants retreat, these small animals follow suit with either long slumbers or feeding off their stockpile of nuts and seeds in their winter dens. Even our ponds and streams can’t provide a bounty, for water denizens are sealed under a thick layer of ice. If you were a raptor, would you stay around and risk not finding food, or would you soar south where food is still plentiful? That said… not all raptors leave. Driving along major highways, you’ll often see red-tailed hawks perched high above, waiting for a mouse or rabbit to make the mistake of exposing themselves. Food is still around, it is just harder to come by. Raptors who do fly south must compete with southern resident birds for food and roosting sites. This added competition is OK though, for the adult raptors only need to worry about feeding themselves. However, when the desire for mating and offspring arises, these southern retreats don’t provide enough food to feed hungry young bellies. So, adults return to their summer breeding grounds… right when their unsuspecting prey emerges from their long winter retreat.

Like humans, raptors concentrate along specific routes while traveling long distances. So, just like you would find more people driving cars on highways than backroads, you’ll find more raptors along flyways. Here in the Northeast, we are part of the Atlantic flyway. Raptor flyways are normally found over level terrain. Mountains, large lakes, and oceans create obstacles that raptors cannot easily cross. Mountains do have a very important role to play, besides being simple barriers. In North America our mountain ranges run north-south. When cross winds hit these ridge an updraft is created, which raptors then use to help them soar and stay aloft. These updrafts mean raptors need to flap their wings less, conserving an enormous amount of energy for their long trip.

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Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Updrafts are extremely helpful… when the wind actually blows. So, what do raptors do in early fall, when the sun is still high in the sky and the winds relatively calm? Physics, my friend. Even if you aren’t an avid hawk watcher, you have probably noticed vultures or hawks flying in large circles with their wings wide and high in the sky. This trick is called soaring flight and it is raptors mastering flight on thermal air currents. Thermal air currents, or thermals, are created when air heated by the sun rises from the ground into the sky. Thermals are often formed along the slopes of hills, but can also form over flat ground. As this warm air rises it cools and condenses, forming puffy, beautiful clouds. If you have a sunny, warm day with puffy clouds, it is also probably a good day for thermals and a good day for raptors to soar overhead.

updraft-thermal
Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Thermals typically do not form over open water; water releases heat evenly and slowly. Without any type of thermal or updraft most raptors must resort to flapping their wings, which uses an extraordinary amount of energy. If raptors decide to migrate over large bodies of water and need to flap the entire way, they are taking a huge risk: if they run out of energy, they will most likely drown. So, when raptors come across a large body of water while migrating, they typically hug the shoreline until they find a short way to cross. These short crossings often form bottlenecks where thousands of raptors pass through every year. One of the largest bottlenecks in the world happens to be in Veracruz, Mexico, where tens to hundreds of thousands of raptors migrating from central and eastern North America pass through, trying to skirt between the Gulf of Mexico and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range.

Identification

The identification of raptors hundreds of feet in the air, where you can often only see a silhouette against a cloud, can seem… daunting. Luckily, with a bit a practice it might be easier than you feared. Hawk watchers often utilize an identification protocol called the SPASMATIC method:

Shape Relative sizes and proportions of wings, tail, and head
Pattern/plumage Contrasting patterns of dark and light
Actions How does the bird fly or what is it doing?
Size How big is the bird in comparison to other birds?
Multiple
Attributes
Use as many of the above characteristics as possible
Trust
In the
Concept
Believe in your ability to judge these characteristics

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

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Hawk silhouettes, image from Learn.org

Accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk) typically chase and feed on songbirds in woodlands with closely spaced trees, so when in flight they have short, rounded wings and long narrow tails.

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Sharp-shinned hawk, note the long tail and rounded wings. By Steve Berardi, accessed from Flicker

Buteos (red-tailed, broad-winged, red-shouldered, and rough-legged hawks) have broad-shaped wings for soaring and perching on high branches.

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Red-tailed hawk, note the dark band of feathers across the belly. This can be seen in all birds, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon) often catch prey in mid-flight in open spaces and depend on speed to capture swift prey, so when in flight you can see that they have pointed wings.

An american kestrel ( perched on a wooden post.
American kestrel

Harriers have broad, strong wings held in the distinctive v-shape (or dihedral shape), which allows them to fly low and slow at ground level, typically around grasslands and marshes. Northern harriers are the only harriers found in our region.

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Northern harrier, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Vultures (turkey and black vultures) have long and broad wings, which aids in soaring over fields and woods while searching for carrion. Turkey vultures hold their wings in the v-shape, but black vultures lack the v-shape almost entirely.

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Turkey vulture, note the difference in feather color between the top and the bottom of the wings,

Osprey distinctively look like large gulls in both body and wing shape. Their wings help them hover over water where they dive feet first into the water to capture fish.

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Osprey in flight, note the distinctive coloration of the feather, photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region

Eagles (bald eagle and golden eagle) have large wingspans to soar high in the air; this also aids them in capturing food in large open spaces on the ground or over water.

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Golden eagle in flight, note the large, long wings, photo by Juan Lacruz

Get out and Hawk watch!

New York has multiple premier Hawk watch locations, with many of them having designated hawk counters. HawkCount gives you the ability to find hawk  watch locations across North America, contacts of designated hawk counters or coordinators, and new and historical data that has been collected at these locations.

We hope you enjoy your next hawk watching adventure. Why not make your next hawk watching experience at a designated hawk watching site in a New York State Park? Here are a few to check out!

Happy birding!

To learn more about hawk watching and to find great resources, visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website.

Robert Moses State Park on Long Island

Out on the south shore of Long Island is a barrier beach called Fire Island, where the First Island Hawkwatch can be found at the east end of Robert Moses State Park. This all-volunteer watch provides coverage from September to November and has access to a hawk watch platform.

To get to the hawk watch platform, proceed south on Robert Moses Parkway and cross the bridge to Robert Moses State Park. From the water tower circle, proceed East to parking lot #5. Park here and walk east toward the lighthouse.

John Boyd Thacher State Park outside Albany

The Helderberg Escarpment Hawk Watch is found just outside Albany, NY at John Boyd Thacher State Park. At the overlook parking lot, hawk watchers can view thousands of broad-winged hawks and other migrating raptors during the park’s annual mid-September Hawkwatch Festival.

To get to overlook parking lot take I-90 to Exit 4 onto Rt 85 west. Follow Rt. 85 for about 11 miles and make a right onto Thacher Road (Rt. 157). “The Overlook” parking area is about 2 miles up the escarpment.

Braddock Bay Park outside Rochester

The great Braddock Bay area outside of Rochester, NY, is one of the top hawk watching sites in New York and is considered a migration “hot spot.” Millions of birds migrate through the area every spring as they head to breeding grounds farther north. In 1996 over 140,000 raptors were counted migrating through the area, and on April 27, 2011 they tallied 42,235 hawks: the biggest spring flight day recorded in the U.S. and Canada. The official hawk count is conducted only in the spring season between March and May. Viewers can use the hawk watch platform found in Braddock Bay Park, which is owned by State Parks and operated by the Town of Greece. The Braddock Bay Raptor Research (BBRR) has conducted the hawk watch since 1986.

To get to Braddock Bay take the Lake Ontario State Parkway until the East Manitou Road/Braddock Bay Park exit. Turn north onto East Manitou Road and turn left into Braddock Bay Park. When you come to a T in the road turn right and continue until you see the hawk watch platform on your left.

Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

The site is adjacent to parking lot at the crest of the road through Betty & Wilbur Davis State Park. It has excellent views to the west over and across the Cherry Valley Creek Valley, and south and southeast. The view to the north is good. The hill obstructs the views northeast and due east.

Check out our 2016 blog post about Golden Eagle migration surveys by Delaware Otsego Audubon Society.

By Matt Brincka, State Parks

Juvenile bald eagle featured image by Matt Brincka, State Parks

The Return of the Eagle

Between 1950 and 1972, chemical contaminations such as DDT almost eliminated bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The chemicals lead to soft, very breakable eggs resulting in no baby bald eagles and a drastic decline in the population, at which time the species was put on the NYS endangered species list as well as the federal list. By 1960, only one active eagle nest was known in New York State. So, in the late 1970’s, an intensive restoration program began to rebuild the population in the state, to hopefully remove them from the list. The program involved bringing in and raising wild bald eagles from the Great Lakes region and Alaska in hopes that the birds would reestablish the population here in New York. The project, known as “hacking”, was a big success! In 2014, a statewide survey found approximately 330 nests in New York, 250 of which were occupied by breeding pairs, causing the species to be moved from  endangered status to threatened within the state. In addition, the birds’ successful recovery across the U.S. led to the removal of bald eagles from the federal Endangered Species list.

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Immature bald eagles often hang out near the nest during the summer. Notice that these birds are all brown, indicating they were born this year. Photo by State Parks.

Bald eagles mate for life and will usually return to the same nesting site year after year, somewhere near their birth nest area. Bald eagle pairs perform various activities together before mating, such as sharing food, building the breeding nest, and sometimes even courtship flights. The nesting season in New York ranges from the beginning of January to the end of August. Between September and December some birds may stay if there is open water and ample food, while others may migrate to a wintering location. During the nesting season, the eagles are extremely sensitive to human disturbances, such as loud noises, fast movement, or being too close to the nest. If too many disturbances happen during the nesting season, the eagles may leave or even abandon their nest. This past summer, State Parks and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enacted a plan to help protect the bald eagles nesting in Beaver Island State Park from these human disturbances. Similar protections are in place for eagles nesting in other State Parks such as on the Hudson River, Thousand Islands, and other regions.

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One of many “no motorized vessel” buoys located around the nesting area. Photo by Josh Wulf,2016.

One protective measure is to keep motorized vessels away from the nesting bald eagles. The “no motorized vessel” buoys extend 330 feet all around the nesting area in all directions. Non-motorized vessels such as kayaks or canoes are permitted. In all cases, there are still federal navigation laws around the islands to help protect the habitat, such as maintaining a 5 mph speed limit while within 100 feet of the shoreline. There are also signs on the land that note the edge of the prohibited area for anyone walking on foot. You can help by paying attention to signs to keep your distance from nesting eagles and also avoid disturbing groups of eagles you may see in the winter.

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Immature bald eagle in late winter. Notice the white feathers are starting to come in, but the bird still lacks the white head of the adults. Photo by Gary McDannel, 2014.

Preserving and maintaining good habitat in State Parks has played an important role to the return of this majestic species. With the cooperation of everyone, we can continue to enjoy the wonder of seeing bald eagles on New York’s lakes and rivers, thanks to the remarkable recovery effort that brought the eagles back.

For more information on bald eagles and the protection, please visit the NYSDEC website:

Viewing Tips

Life History

Protection

Post by Jillian Harris, State Parks

 

Sammi’s Story

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.

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Photos courtesy of Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

Sources:

Post by Chris O’Sullivan, Environmental Educator at Trailside Museum and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park.