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Aug 27, 2017 5:53 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

The Triumphant Return Of The Bald Eagle

A captive adult bald eagle at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Pennsylvania.  COURTESY WILLIAM KONSTANT
Aug 29, 2017 12:29 PM

Disclosing the exact location of bald eagle nesting sites is something of a taboo among conservationists. The symbolic national bird had been on an 80-year hiatus from Long Island, and no one wants to be responsible for taking any chance of spoiling what has been, according to experts, a triumphant return.“There’s always an effort made to not broadcast the nest locations of eagles,” said William Konstant, a conservationist and author who gave a talk titled “Back from the Brink: Recovery of the Bald Eagle on Long Island and Across the Nation” at the Suffolk County Historical Museum in Riverhead last Thursday, August 24.

Bald eagles are experiencing an unprecedented nationwide population resurgence, and Long Island has particularly benefited. In the past decade, seven nesting pairs of bald eagles have been identified on Long Island by the State Department of Environmental Conservation, according to the department’s Suffolk County media affairs representative, Bill Fonda.

Four of those pairs are located on or near the East End: on Gardiners Island in East Hampton, Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve, the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, and the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley.

And there is reason to expect that this number will grow steadily.

“There are probably a lot of nests we haven’t found yet, because there are a lot of eagles around,” said Larry Penny, former East Hampton Town natural resources director, who now writes a nature column for The East Hampton Star. Mr. Penny has been tracking birds on Long Island since the late-1950s.

He said it wasn’t until the 1980s that he began seeing bald eagles, which began to pop up near Georgica Pond in East Hampton.

“I’ve been seeing eagles for the last 20 years, mostly immatures hanging around in the winter, hanging around in the dump,” Mr. Penny said. “But we didn’t expect them to start breeding.”

Somewhere between 2006 and 2008, Gardiners Island became home to the first documented pair of nesting eagles on Long Island since the 1930s. The population had been decimated by the widespread use of harmful pesticides and aggressive hunting practices.

That’s not to say that bald eagles were never sighted on Long Island in that eight-decade period. The territorial creatures claim miles of space as their own. A pair that nest in, say, Hartford, Connecticut, may occasionally fly to Long Island’s North Shore for a brief rendezvous. But the visits are always fleeting.

Since 2008, three other nesting pairs have emerged near the East End, the most recent lodging at the William Floyd Estate in 2015. Even though they will occasionally exist in less than ideal conditions, bald eagles seek out three characteristics in their ideal habitat: coastal waters; large trees for their 5-foot-long stick nests, which can easily weigh a ton or more; and plenty of sizable fish that can be caught on the surface, making Long Island an accommodating home for them.

Last year, the eagles on Shelter Island and at the William Floyd Estate each fledged three chicks. It’s hard to overstate how unusual of an occurrence it is for a nest to fledge more than two chicks, let alone two nests fledging three in the same year. Three eggs are rarely laid, three eggs rarely survive to hatch, and even if they do, most parents support only their strongest one or two chicks, letting the weaker one wither and die.

“You’re talking about less than a 1 percent chance,” Mr. Konstant said.

While the impressive resurgence on Long Island is part of a nationwide phenomenon—in the early 1960s, there were fewer than 500 pairs of nesting bald eagles in the 48 mainland states, and now there are more than 5,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the return of the bald eagle is very much a Suffolk County story.

DDT, a pesticide used to kill insects, became popular after World War I, and it was effective. The problem was, it was too effective.

“The top of the food chain got the heaviest dose of this stuff,” said Kevin McGowan, a professor at Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology, and co-editor of the second New York State Breeding Bird Atlas.

DDT did not directly kill bald eagles, along with osprey and other birds affected; rather, it thinned their eggshells. Birds incubate their eggs by sitting on them, and the egg is designed to withstand a certain amount of pressure. But DDT-thinned eggs were weakened and were subsequently crushed by their parents.

Coupled with loose hunting allowances, it led to the bald eagle’s rapid disappearance.

“We shot the heck out of them,” Mr. McGowan said. “It was absolutely a direct hand by people for the population to plummet and the national symbol to become an endangered species. We did that. But we also had a hand in getting them back.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s, 30 years after DDT ravaged bird populations nationwide, that an effort to protect endangered birds began to take hold.

In the mid-1960s, a consortium of Suffolk County high school biology teachers, Stony Brook University professors and local conservationists formed a grassroots organization, the Environmental Defense Fund, which is now an international organization that boasts more than two million members.

By studying ospreys, a bird now returning in even greater numbers than bald eagles, the group defined a link between DDT and depleting bird populations. In 1966, the diverse group of activists—who had a mere $37 in the bank, and were based out of the attic of the Stony Brook postal office—took Suffolk County’s Mosquito Control Mission to court. They won, and DDT was banned in Suffolk County. In 1972, the federal government banned DDT outright.

“It didn’t go through Congress. God help us if it did. It’d still be pending,” said Mr. Konstant, who will detail the Environmental Defense Fund narrative in his talk. “Five years—that’s short. That’s a blink of an eye.”

A cultural awareness began to burgeon, translating into a flurry of protective legislation, including the Endangered Species Act and the expansion of the Federal Migratory Treaty Act, that was enacted throughout the 1970s.

Slowly, the bald eagle population began to recuperate. And now it is at its peak level “since at least the late-1800s,” Mr. McGowan said.

“I’ve watched the bald eagle come back in this area to a very impressive population,” said Dell Cullum, an East Hampton photographer and wildlife removal expert. “From being lucky to see one to can’t help but see dozens.”

Although bald eagles are no longer an endangered species, they are still afforded protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. To shoot one would lead to at least three criminal charges, according to Mr. McGowan.

But there are other dangers. Virginia Frati, executive director of the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, received her first bald eagle last year after it was found tangled in fishing line in Montauk. That was the first time the center treated an eagle in its 17-year existence.

Now, the interaction between the birds and humans is of a positive nature. The once introverted species has seemingly grown accustomed to being near people—a pair nested on the campus of a Nassau County high school just this year.

“Now, the eagles are used to people,” Mr. McGowan said. “They’ll build in people’s backyards.” And he sees no slowing of their return in the foreseeable future: “I don’t think we’re at a capped point yet. There’s not enough competition between eagles to slow things down.”

At the same time, Mr. McGowan, Mr. Cullum and Mr. Penny predict territorial and food conflicts between bald eagles and ospreys.

“Eagles are opportunistic and will take the young of the ospreys,” Mr. Penny said. “They will chase down an osprey with a fish, make them drop it and then pick it up.”

It’s a scene that plays out, among other places, in Mastic Beach, at Osprey Park, which overlooks the Forge River. A trip to the park can often afford a view of bald eagles—nearly 3 feet long, with 6-foot wingspans—scuffling with ospreys over an ill-fated fish.

It’s a sight that has not existed in almost a century.

“They’re awesome—just a spectacular sight,” Mr. McGowan said of bald eagles. “They’re just freakin’ impressive.”

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A nicely written article, with great photos in the Photo Gallery.

Thanks!
By PBR (4813), Southampton on Aug 29, 17 2:04 PM
1 member liked this comment
I keep seeing a group of high flying, large black birds that have been coming down low into backyards. I think they may be black vultures. It almost looks like they are hunting in a pack. Currently, there are 5 of them. I've seen them flying very low in fields but now I see them flying down into people's yards in my neighborhood. I've never seen this in 60 years I've lived on LI. I don't think they're turkey vultures because they seem to be hunting for live critters.
By btdt (409), water mill on Sep 8, 17 9:43 PM
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