The first full week of the new year brought with it bitter cold temperatures, a fresh cover of snow, and icy north winds. Winter has returned to New York Harbor.
Near the mouth of the harbor, something else returned. At first light, I was excited to see my first Bald Eagle of the year. It was perched on a wooden pole at Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
The stately hawk, the national emblem of the United States, was quietly busy scanning the ice-free bay for food, maybe a fish, perhaps a small duck, or even carrion. The eagle was cold and hungry, it wasn’t going to be choosey.
At first glance, I was a bit puzzled. The bird didn’t exactly look like a typical Bald Eagle. Sure it was a large raptor with a heavy body, big head, and a long, hooked yellow bill. But the color scheme was wrong. It didn’t have a pure white head or tail.
After consulting a few field guides, I came to the conclusion this wasn’t an adult Bald Eagle or even an immature Golden Eagle, but a juvenile Bald Eagle, apparently 3 or 4 years old. The young eagle had a mostly white head, but a dark tail with a body mottled with white and dark brown feathers in varying amounts. Young birds achieve adult plumage with pure white heads and tails in about five years.
Where this juvenile eagle flew in from is anyone’s guess. One common theory is that young Bald Eagles will remain about 100 miles from their birth nest. If that’s true, then this young eagle hatched from a nest somewhere in eastern New Jersey or southern New York.
The nearest active nest is located about 10 miles away as the bird flies near the Swimming River Reservoir in Monmouth County, NJ. There is also one a bit farther away in western Old Bridge Township. Nesting Bald Eagles can be found too in the Palisades, the Oradell Reservoir and even near the City of Linden in northern NJ. Additionally, there is a new nesting pair of eagles at Cheesequake State Park.
The Hudson River in New York State from Kingston to Croton has been increasingly popular with bald eagles as well. According to the NY Department of Environmental Conservation, in recent years there have been well over 35 active nests along the river.
State-wide the news is equally good. In 2010 New York State had 173 breeding pairs, which fledged 244 young. Each year, New York's Bald Eagles fledge about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before. In New Jersey, the state Fish and Wildlife division estimates there are 146 active Bald Eagle nests in 2014, a remarkable achievement when you consider there was only one active nest in the entire state during much of the 1970s.
In the past, there didn’t seem there were any good places for eagles to call home. Bald eagles require quiet places with clear water and plenty of fish; and tall trees for nesting and roosting. Eagles also don’t tolerate much human activity around their nest. All qualities which are difficult to find and sustain in New York Harbor, one of the most urban-suburban coastlines in the world.
More work needs to be done if we wish to see this resurgence in Bald Eagle populations continue in New York and New Jersey. The bad old days are over when DDT nearly put eagles on the brink of vanishing forever from the metropolitan region. This threat, however, has been replaced with numerous other risks including habitat loss, collisions with vehicles, electrocution from power lines, toxins from oil, pesticides and other chemicals, lead poisoning from ingested lead pellets, bullets, and fishing sinkers and eating poisoned rodents and other poisoned animals.
Young Bald Eagles face their own challenges too as they try to mature in this urban-suburban jungle. Bill Nye, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, states that on average for every 10 eagles hatched, only about 1 will survive to adulthood. Only 11 percent of eagles are alive after 3 years of life. Mortality is highest for eagles in their first year of life, especially their first six months.
Yet, with all these challenges, the sight of a young Bald Eagle still provides hope of a new nest and for generations of young eagles to be hatched somewhere nearby in New York Harbor. It’s one of nature’s great comeback stories taking place right here within view of midtown Manhattan. If Bald Eagles can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com