Spotted frequently along the Oswego River this winter, bald eagle populations are rebounding in the Northeast, and CNY was where it all began

There’s no shortage of interesting wildlife along the Oswego River, but this winter has brought a special display of the nation’s most beloved bird.

On Tuesday, at least 15 bald eagles were perched in the trees along the east side of the river just north of Seneca Hill. This was by no means the first time the iconic birds had been spotted there, but seeing so many clustered in one place drew the eyes—and cameras—of a lot of local enthusiasts.

One of those cameras belonged to Laura Munski of Oswego. She normally likes to photograph fungi and insects, but when she read on social media that there were perhaps dozens of bald eagles roosting in the trees along county Route 57 Tuesday, she was eager to brave the cold rain and grab some shots.

“It was exciting to see a bald eagle so close to home in the wild,” Munski said. “And to see so many at once was quite something!”

Munski said she was told there were as many as 38 out there at one point that day, though she was only able to find 15.

For those like Munski who relish the moments when they spot the majestic raptor, there is some good news: they’re making a major comeback in this area.

As recently as a few decades ago—which is a little more than the lifespan of one eagle—these birds were all but extinct in New York state. Their decline was attributed to the widespread use of the insecticide DDT during the 1950s and ‘60s, which weakened their eggs’ shells and severely restricted breeding, according to Dr. Michael Schummer, a visiting professor of zoology at SUNY Oswego.

Today, though, thanks to concerted efforts made by government agencies, a couple nearby universities and concerned citizen-scientists, we here in Oswego County are witnessing the grand comeback of our nation’s revered raptor.

“Their populations are growing now, and New York state has played a key role in reintroducing them to the whole Northeast,” Schummer said.

By 1976, the state’s bald eagle population had dwindled to only one pair, nesting at Hemlock Lake—a small outer Finger Lake located about 40 miles south of Rochester. According to Schummer, those birds were believed to be about 15 years old at the time, but breeding attempts were unsuccessful because the female was too riddled with DDT.

“They were basically extinct (at that point.) They were at least functionally extinct, because the remaining few that were here couldn’t lay eggs anymore,” Schummer said.

Later that year, the New York State Bald Eagle Restoration Project began as a coordinated effort among scientists with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cornell University in Ithaca, and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, along with many unaffiliated volunteers. Schummer said the project helped re-establish a breeding population by bringing in chicks from Alaska—one of the few remaining places in the country where DDT exposure wasn’t prevalent—to the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes southwest of here at the top of Cayuga Lake. There, experts and volunteers spent years hand-rearing the birds until they were able to live independently—a process also known as “hacking.”

“They would bring them here to Montezuma and people would be feeding the chicks with fake bald eagle heads on their hands,” Schummer said. “Then they continued doing that at other locations throughout the state until the numbers started to really grow.”

Over the course of 13 years, Schummer said, 198 nesting bald eagles were collected (mostly from Alaska) and released here in New York state. The state now has at least 300 nesting pairs, Schummer said, and according to the DEC, New York’s bald eagles fledge about 10 percent more young eagles each year than the year before.

“They’ve made a really substantial comeback,” Schummer said. “The number of known breeding pairs of bald eagles (in New York) is now up in the hundreds, and New York state really pioneered bringing them back.”

So why are there so many on the Oswego River this winter?

It’s likely a very desirable spot for them.

According to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, bald eagles tend to be found around lakes and rivers, and would be particularly attracted waterways with dams, falls and shallow rocky passages.

While they’re often soaring by their lonesome in the sky, Cornell reports that it’s not unusual for them to gather in large numbers during the winter, thus explaining why about a dozen of them were seen sitting perched in the same spot all day Tuesday.

But if you’re out with your camera hoping to catch the iconic shot of one snatching up a big, flopping fish from the water, you may have to be patient. Schummer said they actually tend to do more scavenging than hunting.

“We see those classic pictures of them grabbing fish out of the water, but they actually usually go for the easy meal,” Schummer said, referring to dead fish trapped in dams or rocks, or other animal carcasses on land. “They can do that if they need to, but if (a carcass) is of reasonable quality, it makes more sense to them to just scavenge it.”

As their population continues to grow in upstate New York, Schummer anticipates we’ll be seeing more and more bald eagles on the Oswego River in the future.

“I think right now, with what we’re seeing out there, we’re looking at just the tip of the iceberg in New York state,” Schummer said. “I think, especially along the Oswego River, we could potentially see hundreds of them out there.”

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