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Jun 24, 2019 1:46 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Accabonac Eagles Are Ready To Fledge

One of the eagles of Accabonac Harbor.     MARIA BOWLING
Jun 28, 2019 3:13 PM

Like a lot of Springs residents, photographer Maria Bowling first noticed a pair of bald eagles perching in the trees of Tick Island last winter.

“In the mornings, I walked out onto the beach of Louse Point with my camera and observed them with complete awe,” she said. “I never imagined that I would have this kind of opportunity to document them for an extended period of time.”

In early March, another photographer, Darren Helgensen, caught the pair in the act of mating. They were exhibitionists—doing it on every osprey pole in Accabonac Harbor, on treetops, and during midair acrobatics, for all to see.

Bald eagles have never nested in Springs before, as far as local environmentalists know. However, during the Christmas bird count in 2006, ornithologist Mary Laura Lamont spotted a nesting pair on Gardiners Island, the first nest there since 1930.

The theory is that the Bonac pair may be offspring of the Gardiners Island bald eagles, which finally produced babies in 2013, and perhaps the pair in Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, first seen by Michael Scheibel of The Nature Conservancy in 2014. These were the first two nests on Long Island—and that number now may have reached a dozen pairs, or more.

Today, two eaglets are safely ensconced in their nest at the edge of Accabonac Harbor. Sometimes, a larger eaglet will injure or kill its smaller siblings to get more food. Thankfully, both Bonac babies seem healthy and are spreading their wings, getting ready to fledge any day now. The first eaglet on Shelter Island fledged on the Fourth of July in 2014.

The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, became the country’s national bird in 1782. It stands 3 to 4 feet tall, weighs 8 to 16 pounds, and its wingspan is 6 to 7 feet. There is not much difference between the male and female; the female is slightly smaller.

The distinguishing feature, aside from its massive size, is its striking white head and dark brown body. Adults also have white feathers on their tails, with yellow feet and beaks. Eaglets have downy whitish-gray feathers. Juveniles are all dark brown.

Their eyes are even darker, but as they age, their eyes lighten in color and white feathers will begin to appear more and more, until they become adults around 5 years of age, when they reach sexual maturity. They live to be about 30 years old and mate for life. If one eagle in the pair dies, the other will find another mate.

Females usually lay one to three eggs, which incubate for 35 days, and eagles fledge at 12 weeks. They go from a few ounces to 10 pounds in a matter of three months. At 20 weeks, they become independent.

They are not picky eaters but love coots. They’ll eat any duck, fish, rabbits or carrion and are not opposed to stealing food or nests from ospreys, in what is called “kleptoparasitism.” The nest the Bonac family resides in, in fact, was an osprey nest—the parents added branches and twigs to accommodate their growing family. Surprisingly, they didn’t need a permit from the town.

Springs residents have bonded over their new neighbors.

“Having the eagles here has brought me closer to my own neighbors,” Ms. Bowling said. “Many people who have roots in the community say that they had never seen them here before and are always happy to stop and talk when they see me walking around the harbor with my camera. In many ways, the eagles have brought the community together in such a positive experience.”

Ms. Bowling, who is also an acupuncturist, has taken many photos from her home in Springs as the eagles fly overhead, perhaps on their way to Hog Creek or Three Mile Harbor to hunt for food.

“I have learned to identify their sounds and calls, and I know when they are overhead. When I hear one particular shrill call, I know that they are here, and I walk outside,” she said. “They sometimes soar in wide circles, and their massive wingspans cast a large shadow on sunny days.”

After spending time with the eagles, Ms. Bowling has discovered some curious facts, such as their capacity to see and identify their prey from so far away. “As an apex predator, they have special hunting skills,” she said. “The more that I learn about their eyes, the more curious I am about their physiology.”

An eagle eye has two focal points, called foveae, which allow the eagle to see straight ahead and to the side simultaneously. “Eagles use both monocular and binocular vision, meaning they can use their eyes independently or together, depending on what they are looking at,” according to nationaleaglecenter.org. “An eagle can see something the size of a rabbit running at three miles away.”

Bald eagles were removed from the federal Endangered Species list on June 28, 2007, but are still protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the federal Lacey Act.

Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O said he believes that Suffolk County Vector Control helicopters, which spray methoprene over the Accabonac marshlands on a regular basis in the summer, for mosquito control, may be guilty of harassment of the eagle nest.

It is said that methoprene does not bioaccumulate in the food chain like DDT, the chemical responsible for putting the bald eagle on the endangered list in the first place, but flying helicopters, even within the legal distance of 1,000 feet, have to be stressful for birds with young eaglets in the nest.

“It may be legal, but I find the act of a helicopter blanket-spraying wetlands with pesticides to be visually offensive and environmentally destructive,” Mr. McAllister said.

Unfortunately, the “hot spots” for mosquitoes, identified by the East Hampton Town Trustees, are extremely close to the nest, on private land.

Charlie Bevington, chairman of the Sierra Club Long Island Group, another nonprofit organization that opposes the use of methoprene in wetlands, said the pesticide “adversely impacts the salt marsh and local ecosystem; it impacts the food of the local predators.”

Eagles do eat crabs, and methoprene is known to negatively affect lobsters and all types of crabs, because, like mosquitoes, they are arthropods.

When reached for comment, representatives from the State Department of Environmental Conservation said they are going to reach out to Suffolk County Vector Control in reference to the nesting eagles.

It took a lot of work to bring the bald eagle back from the verge of extinction, but one man in particular can be thanked for bringing eagles back to New York State. Peter Nye, formerly of the Department of Environmental Conservation, used hacking, a technique that entails taking a young bird out of an active nest, in this case in Alaska, and raising it until it fledges.

Two hundred eagles were released in New York between 1978 and 1989 in what turned out to be a “tremendously successful program,” according to Mr. Scheibel in a 2015 talk he gave at the Long Island Natural History Conference.

It looks as if the Bonac bald eagles will continue to soar over East Hampton harbors and waterways for many years to come, keeping balance in the ecosystem, connecting people and delivering joy.

“I feel free on the inside, as though I am connecting with something ancient and very powerful,” Ms. Bowling said of her photography. “My intention is to create a portal into their world through the photographs where the viewer may feel a connection to the eagles and a desire to protect them, the local waters and the natural world.”

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