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Nature Watch: How Pete Nye Saved Our Bald Eagles

If you drive to the right spots over the next four weeks, you might see 40 or 50 bald eagles soaring above your head. They winter in our area, thanks to the efforts of one man – Pete Nye, formerly of New York State’s Department of Conservation. When he started his work, only one pair of eagles nested in the state. Now, it’s up to 220.

Bald eagles fly south to fish in the open waters of the Hudson River when their rivers and lakes further north freeze over. Some can also be found along the Housatonic River in Connecticut.

We almost lost our magnificent national symbol to the chemical, DDT, once sprayed widely to eliminate insects. Eagles and other birds, such as the peregrine falcon, ingested the DDT, which weakened the shells of the eggs they laid. They crushed the eggs just by sitting on their nests. In the 1960s, only 478 breeding pairs lived in the lower 48 states, many of which could not reproduce. In 1972, the year Congress banned DDT in the U.S., not a single egg hatched in New York State.

Enter Pete Nye. In 1976, he launched a never-before-tried experiment to collect juvenile bald eagles from northern areas where they were plentiful and release them in New York. In Alaska, he traipsed through the wilds, climbed countless trees and survived the dive-bombing of adult eagles. His hope was that the juveniles he transplanted would return to New York to breed, and it worked! Since then, Pete’s eagles have spread to Connecticut and New Jersey, bringing their soaring beauty to our local skies. All the birds with white heads and tails, and dark brown bodies and wings, are adults. Juveniles have mostly dark heads and tails and mottled bodies and wings.

Where are the best places to see bald eagles? Three spots in Northern Westchester County offer easy access and are extremely reliable at certain times of the day.

George’s Island County Park : Go between 4 p.m. and sunset. Many eagles settle there before heading to their overnight roosts.  Pull into the parking lot facing the Hudson and leave your car quietly. Look at the tops of the trees on the point to your right and you will begin to notice eagles sitting there. You can even hear them chirping to each other as they jockey for the best position.  Bring binoculars or a scope if you have one. Other eagle watchers there will point you in the right direction. Mornings at the park can be good, too, as the eagles like to sun themselves on that same point after cold nights.

During the day when the eagles are most active, drive over to the promenade at Verplanck, N.Y. Stop by the flag pole to see if any eagles are perched in the trees of local residents.  Then drive down to the lower level promenade. Look to Stony Point Park across the Hudson to see if any eagles are perched in the trees.

Also, look directly up. The eagles tend to take a short cut around the river’s bend and fly low. I’ve had as many as 20 fly right over my head.  As usual, other eagle-watchers are very friendly. They’ll tell you how many birds have been seen lately, where they are and whose house has a big bald right in a tree. (While you’re in Verplanck, take the kids to view the replica of the Half Moon , the Dutch ship Henry Hudson sailed to the New World in 1609. It winters there at King Marine.)

When the tide is high, you can also try the Croton train station .  Drive to the end of the parking area where the county salt holding station and boat ramp are and look out at the flooded mud flats.  Eagles come there to try their luck at hunting waterfowl in the unfrozen channel. Then head to Croton Point Park for more opportunities. Bald eagles often soar over the park going to and from the river.

In Connecticut, eagles come to the Shepaug Dam in Southbury. But there’s so much open water for the birds to choose from this year, the tallies have been low. The Hudson River is a better bet.

For the family, I highly recommend the Hudson River Eagle Festival at Croton Point Park in Westchester on Feb. 4 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are bird-of-prey flight shows, children’s games and crafts (mostly inside warm tents) and a bus or self-guided tour of the key eagle viewing sights along the Hudson.

As for Pete Nye, he retired last year from his post as the Director of the Endangered Species Unit of the DEC. Now 61, he lives in Clarksville, N.Y., volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, teaches wildlife management at SUNY Albany and advises a sea-eagle scientific group, which is studying the effect of climate change on bald eagles. Naturally, he keeps in touch with an army of volunteers who monitor eagles throughout New York State. They’re his babies, after all.

John Hannan is director of development for Audubon in Connecticut and can be reached at jhannan@audubon.org.

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