It was another gray, overcast day around New York Harbor. Temperatures were in the low 50s, but it felt chillier with a brisk east wind off the Atlantic Ocean.
Raw winds throughout the day, though, didn’t seem to bother bald eagles. A pair were observed relaxing atop a nest in Cheesequake State Park, located in Old Bridge Township, NJ, not far from the edge of Raritan Bay.
Here they were, the symbol of the United States, hanging out near New York City. It’s an astonishing sight to see, especially when you consider just a few decades ago there were not one single pair of bald eagles nesting near the harbor.
Back in 1966 when the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology published Enjoying Birds Around New York City, their educational book about watching and finding birds in and around the city, bald eagles were not even mentioned. They didn’t exist, and who knew if they would ever again be seen flying, never mind nesting, around the turbid waters of New York Harbor.
In New Jersey during the early 1970s there was only one active bald eagle nest throughout the entire state and it was located way in South Jersey. Even up along the Hudson River in New York State, nesting bald eagles were scarce. It wasn’t until 1997 when a nesting pair produced the first eagle born along the river. It was a first in more than 100 years. Nationally, the bald eagle population hit a low point in 1963, when a nesting survey in the lower 48 states found only 417 pairs, most of them in Florida.
Today, due to cleaner waters (though certainly not clean), strict enforcement of the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, and a ban in the United States of DDT, a pesticide that enters the food chain and causes reproductive failure in many bird species, bald eagle populations are making a comeback. So much so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 downgraded the bald eagle's federal endangered-species status to threatened.
Good news for both New Jersey and New York, there were over 150 active sites statewide in 2014. Nationally, the eagle population has steadily increased since 1963 to well over approximately 10,000 nesting pairs.
It has taken a while for bald eagles to once again call New York Harbor home. Currently there are only two identified nesting sites. One is located on the south shore of Staten Island in New York City and the other at Cheesequake State Park in New Jersey, both nests located near Raritan Bay. It's something the harbor hasn't seen in over a century.Of course there have been nesting bald eagles several miles away from the harbor for many years including in Linden and Middletown, New Jersey, and several up along the Hudson River in both New Jersey and New York.
While the exact location of the Staten Island nest is undisclosed to protect the birds from human disturbance, the Cheesequake nest is more readily available for public viewing. It’s a bizarre eagle nest to view too. It’s situated out in the open on top of an old osprey platform. Usually bald eagles like to raise a family in live white pine or oak trees above the forest. But for whatever reason this newly espoused pair decided they loved sitting atop a tall osprey platform in the middle of a saltwater wetland.
Just like good New Yorkers, this Cheesequake pair is not following the crowd. They are going to nest where they want to nest. Who cares what other eagles might think.
Good luck to both pairs of bald eagles around New York Harbor for a successful breeding season in 2016. The birds should start the egg laying process sometime during the winter, from January to early March.
Remember to always view wildlife from a distance. If you see someone harassing or injuring an eagle, or if you spot destruction of eagle habitat or find an injured or dead eagle, in New York City report it to DEC's Wildlife Diversity Unit at 518-402-8920. In New Jersey report it to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection at their toll free number 1-877-927-6337.