Miles 5,6 and 7: Finding baby eagles

Standing near the Rondout Reservoir on Rt 55A in Sullivan County, N.Y., I can see close to the top of a tall pine, the white head of a bald eagle as it tends one or more nestlings who have hatched.

Thanks to Paul Gamer, a volunteer with several conservation groups in the Upper Delaware (who loves to share his love of eagles) I have access to scopes that can bring that image close enough that I can see the sort-of furry, sort-of bald brown head of one chick.

I am amazed by the sight of the nestling through the lens, and the sight of the parent’s signature while feathers being tousled by the breeze, but the most amazing this of all, really, is that I’m standing less that the width of a football field away from the massive nest, and I can see the white head of the eagle without any lens at all.

I asked Paul to be the first in the series of volunteer videos that I’m planning for my website, where I plan on using a short video to spotlight the many people who are working to keep the Delaware and its watershed beautiful and healthy.

I never expected to be given a tour of nesting sites, but this is the right time of year, and Paul is like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to eagles.

We started in State Game Lands 180 in Shohola, Pa. where we could see a nest in a far-off tree, but there wasn’t much happening. It looked empty. Paul explained that once there are eggs in the nest, at least one eagle is either on the nest or near it. He also explained that it’s hard to tell the male from the female unless they are perched side by side. Then you can figure it out as the female is larger.

So it’s easy to see if there are eggs or nestlings in a nest, because one of the parents is nearby. With no parents around, Paul surmised that there were no eggs. Paul shows his fondness for the birds as he says, “The babies must have died.” No ornithological, scientific distance, just a love of eagles. He explained that our resident eagles mate for life and breed every year at the same site, but many times the young birds die. The deserted nest seemed forlorn.

Next stop: the Basha Kill, which lies in the valley between the Catskills and the Shawangunks, its waters join the Neversink River, which in turn flows into the Delaware River. It’s managed by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and the area’s proper name is the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area.

The Basha Kill Area Association is the local group founded to protect the stream and the wetlands of the Basha Kill. Its web page gives good information on its programs . Like many of the organizations that Paul volunteers with, there are eagle-watching programs that station people like Paul at prime eagle-watching sites both in winter when eagle numbers are up due to the migration of more northerly birds coming south to open waters like the Delaware River and in the spring, when there are volunteers on hand to provide visitors with scopes to view the birds.

Thanks to Paul’s scopes, we have the proverbial bird’s eye view of the far-off nest, not visible to us where we stand at water’s edge. At first it’s hard to see — surprising that such a striking bird can blend in so well with the trees. Clearly this nest is active and the parent stands sentinel.

As an extra treat, Paul sets up another scope to see if we can see activity at an osprey nest. We do. This parent is active, flying off the nest and returning. There’s also another eagle nest on the Basha Kill, which Paul says is sort of unusual. Eagles aren’t too bothered about other birds during most of the year, but come nesting time, they can be very territorial.

And, as Paul says, saving the best  for last, we head up to the Rondout Reservoir to see the closest nest we’ve seen all day. And lucky for us, we arrive in time to see the parent eagle retuning to the nest, which is simply amazing. We spend about an hour just watching, and through the scopes we can catch an occasional glimpse of the baby bird.

Some organizations like the Delaware Highlands Conservancy and the Basha Kill Area Association offer help for eager eagle watchers. Others have nests for the looking, but are happy to let nature take its course while we just watch.

This tour was while the eggs were newly hatched. Paul tells me I should do another tour in a few weeks to see the fledglings tettering on the edge of the nest, flapping their wings to get ready for takeoff.

That sounds like a great idea!


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