SARANAC LAKE - The bald eagle population is continuing to increase across New York State and the Adirondacks.
With an annual mid-winter survey near completion, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced in early March that preliminary results indicate that the statewide bald eagle population may be at an all-time high since the state began its repopulation efforts more than 30 years ago.
New York has conducted annual surveys since 1979. The highest official winter count occurred in 2008 when 573 bald eagles were spotted. DEC's preliminary results for 2010 indicate that sightings may exceed this number.
Bald eagles prefer large bodies of water, such as Lake Clear where this one was spotted.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
As of Jan. 31, 459 eagles had been sighted, a pace well ahead of the 2008 record.
At the start of the surveys in early January, DEC works with the state police aviation unit to conduct aerial observations of the state's largest known wintering habitats. This information is supplemented with reports from dozens of volunteers throughout the state who report their observations to DEC.
During the DEC's aerial survey, 101 eagles were identified along the St. Lawrence River, 30 along Lake Champlain, 277 in the Hudson River and Delaware River basins, and 51 in Western New York in the Allegheny River and Lake Erie basins.
Statewide, this winter's count is expected to be higher than previous years because of prolonged periods of cold weather and extensive ice conditions - factors which can draw more eagles in from Canada and concentrate them within a few suitable wintering habitats in New York.
In the Adirondacks, the focus of the study is along the Lake Champlain shoreline where 30 eagles were spotted this winter. The number wasn't particularly high - it's been as high as 80 - because during cold winters eagles will often go further south in search of open water. Eagles prefer big open rivers, such as the Hudson River, because their main source of food is fish.
There are two populations of eagles in the Adirondacks: those that spend their winters here after the lakes in Canada freeze over and those that come here from March to September to breed.
"The eagles that summer here, winter for the most part in Ontario," DEC wildlife biologist Joe Racette said. "We have eagles year-round but they are different eagles throughout the year."
During the summer, the DEC conducts a survey by counting eagles in their nests and keeping tallies on birds they have banded from previous years. During the summer months, bald eagles are most likely to be found on the larger bodies of water, including those in the Tri-Lakes.
"The nesting population in the Adirondacks tends to be in the vicinity of Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, the Great Sacandaga Lake now has some eagle nesting, but it's generally on our larger lakes," Racette said.
In the Adirondacks, the DEC monitors about 12 to 15 eagle nesting sites, Racette said. Because they are so far and few between, eagles have been known to compete over nests.
"The nest sites are very important," Racette said. "We have found a few occasions where we have found eagles killed by other eagles in a nest fight."
Though the general number of eagles and nesting sites in the Adirondacks is lower than other parts of the state, it's mainly because the Adirondacks doesn't have the habitat they are seeking. Still, the population is slowly increasing.
"Generally, the percentage of increase in population has been the same in the Adirondacks as it has been for other parts of the state. It's just that we were starting from a lower number," Racette said. "But we have seen an increase. Almost every year we're finding a new nest."