By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: February 12, 2009
IT looked as if paparazzi had descended on the Croton Dam Bridge. Clusters of photographers with tripods and telephoto lenses conferred excitedly when they got the subject in their sights. Dozens of others had binoculars and telescopes trained on their elusive prey.
The celebrities they were pursuing? Bald eagles, which were spotted on the ice of the partly frozen Hudson River and nestling in trees on the shoreline. It was all part of Eagle Fest, an event that has been held annually for the last five years to celebrate the return of the bald eagle to the lower Hudson Valley.
“It’s such a success story, we wanted to share it with the public,” said Fred W. Koontz, the executive director of Teatown Lake Reservation, an Ossining-based nonprofit environmental organization — with an 834-acre nature preserve — and a co-sponsor of the event. “The bald eagles in the area are recovering, and they have been coming back.”
Bald eagles, among the largest birds of prey in North America, were once plentiful in New York. Before the 1900s, they used as many as 80 nesting sites, primarily in northern and western New York, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. But by 1976, only one pair of eaglets remained. Environmentalists blamed pesticides, particularly DDT (which was banned in 1972), for interfering with the raptors’ ability to reproduce.
In 1976, the state began its Bald Eagle Restoration Project in an attempt to re-establish a breeding population. Over 13 years, 198 nesting bald eagles were collected, mostly from Alaska, and taken to New York. They were reared in cages in towers in the mid-Hudson region and released.
Today, roughly 500 bald eagles winter in New York (they migrate here when the waters begin to freeze in Canada and Nova Scotia), and 143 pairs remain in the state during the summer. Dr. Koontz said that eight pairs had stayed year-round in the lower Hudson Valley.
The Eagle Fest, which was held on Feb. 9 and based at Croton Point Park, included heated tents with educational displays and talks by conservationists. But the wild eagles were the main event, and a white board kept visitors up to date on the latest sightings.
At 9 a.m., 6 bald eagles had been spotted from the boat ramp at the Croton-Harmon train station, 21 had been seen at George’s Island Park in Montrose, 9 had been spotted at the Croton Dam and 3 had been seen at Annsville Creek Paddlesport Center in Peekskill.
By 11 a.m., 25 eagles had been spotted at the dam, some of them feeding on a deer carcass on the partly frozen Hudson. Meanwhile, a peregrine falcon was perched on a street lamp at the train station.
Still more eagles could be seen from the shoreline of Croton Point Park. Frank and Patty Clark of Tarrytown saw two bald eagles flying about two miles out, over the Hudson. The Clarks were at the festival with their 3-year-old son, Frankie. All three had binoculars around their necks.
“I’ve never seen an eagle in the wild before,” Mr. Clark said. “It was exciting. They were both bald eagles. One was mature and one was immature.”
Mature bald eagles have the distinctive white heads and tails; the word “bald” in the eagle’s name comes from an Old English word that means white-headed. Younger bald eagles have brown heads.
Among the presentations at the festival was “Close Encounters With Birds of Prey,” a kind of Raptors 101 given by Bill Streeter of the Delaware Valley Raptor Center.
Mr. Streeter explained that the term raptor refers to any birds of prey — including hawks, vultures, falcons, owls and eagles. Raptors have hooked beaks, strong talons and feet that are disproportionately large for their bodies. The center where Mr. Streeter works treats sick and injured raptors. Most are set free when they have recovered, but some could not survive if released into the wild.
It was some of these birds that Mr. Streeter introduced as they perched on his falconer’s glove, including Ace, a peregrine falcon that had been hit by a car. Falcons, when healthy, can fly at 200 miles per hour and can kill birds four times their size, Mr. Streeter told his audience. Peregrine falcons are now nesting on Hudson River bridges from Manhattan to Albany.
Mr. Streeter also displayed a red-tailed hawk, a great horned owl and a saw-whet owl, but it was when he lifted Benson, a bald eagle, from his cage, that the audience let out a gasp of admiration.
Benson, though unable to fly because he had once been shot in the chest, still looked majestic. He was restless, and Mr. Streeter struggled to keep him perched on the glove.
He also displayed Julia, a 14-pound golden eagle, with 3 ½-inch talons and a 7-foot wingspan, “one of the most powerful birds in the United States.”
Festival visitors — some 4,000 by the end of the day — made their way from the heated tents to the various viewing sights. Dan and Carol Carhart of Denville, N.J., came to the festival on a bus tour. Self-proclaimed bird lovers, they have seen eagles all over the country.
Steve Brown of Manhattan came because his son Matthew, 7, had been studying birds in the first grade.
“We’ve taken up birding this year,” Mr. Brown said. “I knew eagles were on the Hudson, but I didn’t know they were this far south. We’re trying to get out and learn as much as we can.”
Hector DeLeon of Cortlandt Manor attended the raptor show and then made his way up to the Croton Dam. He was sporting a baseball cap with an eagle insignia and a sweatshirt with an image of a large bald eagle.
“I just really do like eagles,” he said. “They’re our national bird. They fly into a storm. They represent something."