Spotting an American bald eagle on this Fourth of July, or any other day, no longer requires looking at coins, stamps or the top of flagpoles.
Our national symbol is on the verge of becoming an increasingly regular presence in the Western New York sky.
State environmental officials have counted 20 to 30 nesting sites in Erie, Niagara, Wyoming and the westernmost Southern Tier counties.
That explains why more and more area residents are making regular bald eagle sightings from Chautauqua through the Southtowns and at points along the Niagara River.
“Everybody thinks you have to take a trip to Alaska. I can show you a bald eagle this afternoon,” said Jim Landau, a Buffalo Ornithological Society member and coordinator at the Hamburg Hawk Watch, a group that logged a record number of bald eagle sightings this spring. “They can be seen easily. They are out there.”
Half a century ago, pesticides laced with DDT ruined the bird’s eggs and nearly eradicated the species in New York State. DDT was eventually banned, and the reintroduction of the species in the Adirondacks decades ago has begun to bear fruit here.
“It’s sort of exceeded our expectations now in terms of their numbers,” said Mark Kandel, regional wildlife biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It’s the poster child for the Endangered Species Act,” Kandel said. “The real heavy lifting has been done.”
Kandel explained that the bald eagle – which is no longer on the federal endangered species list and has been downgraded to a “threatened” species in New York – has moved into the department’s “maintenance” phase, where the DEC simply monitors the species rather than taking an active role in promoting its proliferation.
The bird has managed to do that pretty well on its own.
“The right environment is there so the eagles could come in, exploit it and be really successful,” said William Watson Sr., a City of Tonawanda-based watcher who has been keeping close tabs on the area’s newest nesting spot – Strawberry Island in the Niagara River.
News of an eaglet observed overhead there Wednesday afternoon initially took a pair of nearby river kayakers by surprise.
But then Alex Pason, of the Town of Tonawanda, and Andrew Carl, of Sanborn, ’fessed up: It wasn’t their first contact with the bald eagle.
They were just weeks removed from another close encounter while kayaking in the Eighteen Mile Creek gorge near the towns of Hamburg and Eden.
“I was like, ‘Is that a bald eagle?’ and ... swung around the kayak,” said Pason. “It was massive. I was amazed by the size of that thing.”
“The white head really stands out.”
That’s something Landau is used to hearing.
“Everybody is familiar with the ‘Forever’ stamp or the Airborne Ranger patch with the bald eagle. When you see a bald eagle you are not expecting to see, it’s just a show-stopper,” said Landau. “The bald eagle is so embedded in the American consciousness, it’s always exciting when a bald eagle shows up. Even though they’re not as rare as they used to be. It always gets a ‘wow.’”
This year, that “wow factor” is concentrated on Strawberry Island, where bald eagles, after a few unsuccessful previous attempts, established a nesting spot this spring.
They fledged an eaglet from that location, which is now designated with signage as a restricted location by the DEC. Bald eagles had previously set up a nest on the Canadian side of the river at Navy Island, just upstream from Niagara Falls.
Like Navy Island, the Strawberry Island site seems uniquely suited for the predatory birds because it is near a water body with an abundance of prey, high in the air and somewhat isolated. Those are factors that bald eagles prefer in a nesting spot.
A top-of-the-food chain predator, the presence of bald eagles, peregrine falcons and osprey – all of which are re-emerging locally – are a bellwether of a healthier environment, according to experts.
Besides all of that anecdotal evidence, Watson cites the authoritative Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of New York State.
The atlas, which confirmed two bald eagle nests statewide from 1980 to 1985, states that number exploded to 124 nests between 2000 and 2005.
“I think the protection is the biggest thing for the eagles,” Watson said. “The food has always been there. The removal of DDT make it possible for them to come back to the area.”
The bald eagle’s national status and importance likely played a huge role in getting environmental laws passed to aid it and, by extension, other avian species.
“It worked in its favor that it was the national symbol,” said Kandel of the bald eagle.
Continuing to offer a safe and attractive environment for these majestic birds, said Kandel, promises a future of even more bald eagles.
“That would be the epitome of success for the next generation – that it’s common for people to see an eagle.”