Spotting bald eagles on the East End: North Fork Outdoors

A juvenile bald eagle. (Credit: Chris Paparo/fishguyphotos)

One of the most recognizable and majestic birds of the North Fork is the bald eagle. This symbol of our great nation is a year-round resident, but its population soars during the winter months, especially after the deep freeze we have been experiencing lately. 

Standing at over three-feet tall and with a wingspan exceeding six feet, the bald eagle is one of the largest birds you will encounter here. As adults, their brown body with bright white head and tail make them easily distinguishable from any other bird. Juveniles on the other hand are often misidentified as golden eagles, as they are overall brown in color with white mottling on their underside. They will attain the well-known adult plumage at the age of five.

Because of the bald eagle’s great size, you will not find them nesting in the red oaks and pitch pines of your backyard. They require trees that are large enough to support a nest that is typically four-to-five-feet in diameter and two-to-four-feet deep. One of the largest nests ever recorded was found in St. Petersburg, Florida and it measured over nine-feet wide, twenty-feet deep and weighed more than two tons.

To accommodate their needs, large conifers that rise high above the surrounding canopy are preferred nesting sites. With a diet consisting primarily of fish, nesting within the vicinity of a large body of water such as bays, lakes and rivers is also an important factor that is considered by eagles when looking for a place to call home.

Although bald eagles primarily feed on fish, they will also feed on ducks, gulls and mammals such as rabbits and muskrats. They even feed on carrion (dead and decaying flesh) when food becomes scarce. In fact, I have witnessed them feeding on road killed deer on several occasions.

An adult bald eagle on an osprey platform. (Credit: Chris Paparo/fishguyphotos)

In 1782, when the United States adopted the bald eagle as the symbol of our nation, it was estimated that there were roughly 100,000 nesting pairs in the country. By 1963, that number dropped to an alarming 417 pairs.

Their downward spiral began in the early 1800s when fishermen and farmers saw eagles as a threat to their livelihoods and began shooting them to protect livestock and fish populations.

Further damage to the population came in the way of habitat destruction from logging activities. Large standing trees are not only sought after by bald eagles, they are also highly prized by the timber industry. As more and more of these old growth forests were cut down, there were fewer places for them to successfully nest.

Although they were protected in 1940 by the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited the killing, selling or possessing of the birds, their numbers continued to plummet. In 1967 they were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act and then transferred to the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Each of these actions were vital steps in the recovery efforts of the bald eagle, but it was not until the use of DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was banned in 1972 that we saw a reverse in the descending trend of their population.

DDT is a pesticide that was used heavily after World War II in an attempt to eradicate mosquitoes. Once it enters the ecosystem, it accumulates in the fatty tissue of organisms (a process known as bioaccumulation). Through predator/prey relationships, this concentration increases as you move up the food chain, with top predators containing the highest levels of the toxin (a process known as biomagnification). As apex predators, bald eagles absorbed high amounts of DDT and it inhibited their ability to produce thick eggshells. The eggs they laid had such thin shells that they would be crushed when the female tried to incubate them.

An adult bald eagle rests on a sod farm. (Credit: Sean Keenan)

The banning of DDT played the most important role in the rebuilding of bald eagle populations. In June of 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the population had recovered to nearly 10,000 nesting pairs and they removed bald eagles from the list of threatened and endangered species. Other bird populations such as brown pelicans, peregrine falcons and ospreys have also greatly benefited from the ban of DDT.

In 1976, only one pair of eagles called New York home and “thanks” to DDT they were unable to successfully reproduce. Biologists from the N.Y. Department of Conservation (DEC) implemented the Bald Eagle Program and between 1976 and 1988 biologists collected 198 nestling bald eagles from Alaska, where they were still abundant. These birds were raised, acclimated to their new surroundings, and released into the wilds of New York. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of these DEC biologists, they had established 10 breeding pairs in New York by 1989. Today there are more than 170 pairs throughout the state and the population is continuing to grow.

This upswing of the bald eagle population has also been seen in our area. Long Island’s last known historic nesting site was on Gardiners Island in 1932. Approximately 80 years later, bald eagles are once again nesting on Gardiners Island and at several other locations throughout Long Island. On the North Fork, the Riverhead area is probably your best bet at spotting a bald eagle. I have seen them along the freshwater side of the Peconic River, Peconic Riverfront Park, Indian Island, the numerous Riverhead sod fields and on two occasions soaring high above Stop & Shop on Route 58.

The best advice I can give when looking for bald eagles is to have patience. For such a large, powerful bird, they can be extremely nervous and skittish. They will see you long before you see them and will fly off without you ever knowing that they were there. The best bet is to find a location where they are being regularly reported and wait for them to come to you. You can find bird sightings at this website. With perseverance and a little bit of luck, hopefully you will spot one of the North Fork’s most majestic animals, the bald eagle.

With a degree in marine biology from LIU/Southampton, Chris Paparo is the manager of Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Sciences Center. Additionally, he is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the NYS Outdoor Writers Association. You can follow Paparo on Facebook and Instagram at @fishguyphotos.