OSWEGO COUNTY — The United States’ national bird has been showing up frequently in the area and according to local avian experts, they might become a regular sight here in the coming years.
“Bald eagles are becoming fairly common around here in the winter, which is awesome to see,” SUNY Oswego ornithologist Dr. Daniel Baldassarre said.
The bald eagle ranges everywhere on the North American continent from Florida to Alaska. Baldassarre said that thanks in part to Oswego’s preferable habitat, eagles are drawn to the Port City.
“They tend to come down to this area during the winter because they are attracted to open water,” Baldassarre said. “Anywhere there is open water where they can fish is a great place to find them.”
Baldassarre said most of his eagle sightings are along the Oswego River and at the SUNY Oswego Rice Creek Field Station. He's spotted nearly two dozen he believes make their home in and around the swamps and marshes.
Onondaga Audubon Society (OAS) ornithologist Gerry Smith, citing recent data, said the return of the bald eagle has been striking.
“There are probably more bald eagles around right now than any point since the Civil War,” Smith said.
OAS is the national avian observing chapter for central New York and the eastern Lake Ontario basin and their primary facility, Mexico’s Derby Hill Bird Observatory, has kept a daily eagle count since 1980.
“In 1980, the first year they kept records, the total number of bald eagles seen for the season — late February to early June — was six. Last year, it was well over 1,300,” Smith said. He said the reported number is not just eagles in the area but the total number of bald eagles witnessed while migrating and moving through the area.
The bald eagle was driven to near extinction due to aggressive use of the pesticide Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and hunting. To combat this, bald eagles were added to the endangered species list in 1978.
DDT was developed in the 1940s as the first modern synthetic insecticide used to prevent malaria, typhus, and other diseases. During the early years of its use, the public believed the benefits outshines the drawbacks.
“I remember very clearly when I was younger, all the propaganda that came out from the chemical industry saying DDT didn’t do any harm,” Smith said.
While adult eagles aren't directly harmed by DDT, the chemical has devastating effects on their eggs as it bio-accumulates up the food chain through fish with DDT in their system consumed by the eagles.
“The eggs would (be weak and) get crushed, crack or wouldn’t develop properly,” Baldassarre said. "During the ‘60s, there was one known pair of breeding eagles in the entire state.”
In addition to DDT, Smith said people used to frequently shoot at bald eagles, noting that eagles often seen at the Derby Hill Bird Observatory had visible bullet and pellet wounds, especially prominent in broken wings.
“That used to be seen regularly during the ‘60s and ‘70s into the early ‘80s, not so much today anymore,” Smith said. Regulations, fines and potential jail sentences of up to five years were contributing factors to the decline.
In 1972, DDT was banned by the EPA and since then, the eagles have made a soaring recovery. In 2007, bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list.Both Baldassarre and Smith agree that the reason for the bald eagles’ resurgence is environmental conservation efforts, and it's one of the nation's best success stories of animal population rehabilitation.
“We would only expect that to continue in this area because the population is increasing and this is a great habitat for them,” Baldassarre said.
Interested bird watchers should look for nests in large dead trees near bodies of water. Suggested bodies of water include but are not limited to the Oswego River, Lake Ontario, Rice Creek and the Salmon River Falls.
To learn more about eagle watching in the local area and to watch the daily eagle count, visit https://onondagaaudubon.com/derby-hill-bird-observatory/.