If you have never had the opportunity to see a bald eagle in the lower Hudson Valley, there is no better time than the present. In addition to the small amount of year-round resident eagles, local birders estimate that as many as 80 eagles migrate to our area from northern locations such as Canada every winter, so that they can reap the benefits of accessible fish in open water. Sharing our home with bald eagles is one of the great perks of living in the lower Hudson Valley, a perk that we are able to enjoy because of local and national efforts to restore this species.
You don’t have to be a bird expert to see an eagle this winter. In fact, you may not even have to leave your car. In the months of January through March bald eagles are easy to see at spots at the reservoirs and the Hudson River. Here are some popular eagle viewing spots:
• George’s Island Park, Montrose. When facing the river, eagles can be seen perched on the tall trees on the south-facing peninsula to your right. The southern orientation ensures a warmer site for roosting on these cold winter days. One sunny afternoon I saw 9 eagles at this location.
• Haverstraw Bay Park, Haverstraw. Bring your binoculars and look for eagles flying high above the river.
• New Croton Dam, Croton. Head to the top of the dam about an hour before sunset and if you are lucky, you will see a bald eagle fly right overhead. This is an eagle avenue, where eagles head inland to sheltered areas to roost for the night. I have also seen bald eagles in this location eating a catch on the ice or roosting in trees.
• Verplanck Steamboat Riverfront Park, Cortlandt. Facing the river, look left for eagles in the trees along the river. At this site in 2009, I was lucky enough to see 14 eagles sitting on an ice floe, floating down the river.
•Iona Island State Park, Stony Point. Park in the pull-out area along Rt 6/202 on the east side of the Hudson river. Look for bald eagles in the tree line, on the ice, or flying overhead.
Identification: Bald eagles are easy to spot if you know what you are looking for. They are the largest raptors in this area, with 6 to 8 foot wingspans. From afar they can look like dark round objects when perched on trees or sitting on the ice. In flight, the eagle often soars, riding on wind currents high in the sky. Their wings stretch straight out, as straight as a tabletop, as opposed to the “V” shape of the vulture’s wingspan.
Behavior: Eagles are both hunters and scavengers. They are often found around open water, because of their fishing ability. Eagles can also be found where there is carrion available, including on the edges of train tracks where deer have been struck. Often you will see a group of eagles gathered around one catch, trying to get the easiest dinner possible. In the afternoons eagles prepare for the cold night by flying to a sheltered roosting site, often one with dense tree cover and a south facing orientation. Windy days will often find them soaring high above, taking advantage.
Etiquette: While we are enjoying the eagle views, it is important to remember that human behavior has the potential to negatively affect these birds. There are certain eagle etiquette rules that are important to follow to ensure the bald eagle will continue to inhabit the lower Hudson Valley in the future.
• Avoid making loud noises (shouting, car horns, etc.)
• View from designated areas and at a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope
• Do not get too close (no closer than ¼ mile)
• Leave pets at home
EagleFest 2012: The easiest, and most informative, way to make your eagle dreams come true is to attend Teatown Lake Reservation’s Hudson River EagleFest from 9 to 4 Feb. 4.
This annual event celebrates the return of the bald eagle to our area. The main hub of activity is at Croton Point Park, where you can view a raptor show, learn about bald eagle natural history and restoration efforts, take a guided bird walk, visit collaborator tables and presentations including children’s eagle activities, and follow it up with some hot coffee or a cookie.
There will also be warming stations with eagle viewing experts at sites along the river including the Croton Boat Launch, George’s Island Park, Riverwalk Center in Sleepy Hollow, and Riverfront Green in Peekskill. The jewel of EagleFest is the guided bus tour, which will take you to three eagle viewing sites with a naturalist.
For more information on EagleFest, including how to make reservations, go to www.teatown.org.
Whether you spend 10 minutes or 10 years looking for eagles, remember the most important rule of eagle watching: patience. Some days my frozen fingers hold binoculars fruitlessly, and other days I decide to stop by the river for a 5-minute look and I see a spectacular eagle sighting.
This year, because winter has been warmer than usual, eagle watching may require more patience. During cold winters when substantial ice forms on waterways, bald eagles tend to congregate near open water. This can provide amazing views of many eagles in one location. Because of the decrease in ice on the river this winter, bald eagle migrants have spread out over the area and some may have not come down this far south because there is open water to the north. Local bird watchers, such as Kenny Flynn of New City, have noticed fewer eagles at eagle watching spots.
Flynn frequents waterfront locations in Haverstraw and Stony Point to watch and photograph eagles. According to Flynn, only a few eagles have been seen so far this season in spots where he would normally see many.
The Hook Mountain Hawk Watch folks reported bald eagles and ospreys but no golden eagles this fall.
No matter what the circumstances, every time I see a bald eagle my mouth opens in awe. Here’s wishing you all lots of “eagle-awe”, and here’s wishing the bald eagle many more years of health and habitat in the lower Hudson Valley!