Approaching a bald eagle's nest that sits more than 100 feet above in a white pine, Peter Nye turns to the three people walking with him. Above, the adult eagle is squawking.
"That's one of the adult's defense calls, which is always a good sign," says Nye, the endangered species unit leader with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "It means there is something going on in the nest."
It's mid June and Nye is leading a small group, including DEC seasonal wildlife technician John Shea and DEC biologist Joe Racette, to an eagle's nest in the northern Adirondacks. Nye is at the tail end of a two-month period during which he is performing field work on eagles throughout the state. On this particular day, he's working on the productivity study that requires him to count eagles born this spring.
A young eaglet in its nest high atop a white pine.
(Peter Nye — DEC photo)
Nye is going to climb the tree to determine how many young eagles are in the nest. While Nye's up there, he also bands the birds, but that is secondary to getting the count. The counting is something he usually does from a small airplane but this nest was hard to see, he said.
Now standing under the white pine, which is within shouting distance of a large lake, Nye puts down his backpack and begins gathering his climbing gear: carabiners, rope, spikes for his feet and a bandana that he folds before putting it on like a headband.
Before long, Nye begins ascending the tree, his arms wrapped around the broad truck and spikes holding him steady as he moves along. Racette, using a rope attached to a carabiner below the nest, is belaying him.
Anatomy of a bald eagle's nest
Eagles' nests are incredibly large structures. Often, they are six feet across and six to eight feet deep. They are flat on top with a little lip around the edge and a small 10-inch deep cup for the eggs.
Inside the eagles nests are dead branches, grass and other vegetative material. Often, there are food scraps, such as fish carcasses, feathers from crows, ducks, seagulls and some shed from eagles. Occasionally, there are some human-made materials.
"I have a box at home of things I've found in eagles nests," said Peter Nye, head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's endangered species unit. "Monofilament line is a very common thing to find in eagle's nests."
Nye recalled that he once found a nest in the town of Franklin in which all three eagles died because of fishing materials.
"Two birds were on the ground with fish hooks in their feet, wrapped up in monofilament and the third eagle was hanging 20 feet below the nest hung up by monofilament, which is kind of unusual," Nye said. "You sometimes do lose one young like that, but to have all three that were lost in the nest in a single year is pretty dramatic."
Eagles choose nests near bodies of water, so they can feed on the nearby fish. Often they are in tall white pines that stand above most other trees.
They can remain for decades. Nye pointed out that one nest in northern Franklin County has produced more than 20 eagles.
In the Adirondacks, the DEC monitors about 12 to 15 eagle nesting sites, DEC biologist Joe Racette said. Because they are so few and far between, eagles have been known to compete over nests.
"The nest sites are very important," DEC biologist Joe Racette said. "We have found a few occasions where we have found eagles killed by other eagles in a nest fight." - Mike Lynch
Nye is headed to the top of the pine, where a pair of eagles are raising a young-one born this spring. Within minutes, Nye has disappeared into the branches above, positioning himself on a roughly 8 inch branch near the nest.
"They know how to pick a nest," Nye would say later. "I've always said, 'There's no view like an eagle's nest.'"
The eagle population
Biologists like Nye, and those who assist him around the state, have found themselves busy in recent years because the eagle population has been increasing at a steady rate, especially in the last decade.
The number of bald eagles in the state climbed from 43 breeding eagles in 2000 to 158 last year, according to the DEC's 2009 bald eagle report. The report also states that in 2000, there were 71 eagles fledged. By last year that number grew to 223.
In 2002, there were 13 eagles in DEC regions 5 and 6, which make up the Adirondacks and outlying counties. Last year, there were 30.
In the Adirondacks, the numbers aren't as substantial because this is a difficult place to raise young eagles for several reasons, including the harsh weather. Spring snowstorms and cold weather can be difficult for young birds.
Regardless, compared to the 1960s and 1970s, the population surge represents a tremendous change. Back then, eagles were pretty much wiped out in the Northeast, except for Maine, due to the use of DDT, which interfered with eagles reproductive abilities. In the 1970s, the DEC knew of only one nest in New York being used and it wasn't producing eaglets.
"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."
Follensby and the Northeast
A big reason for the increase in eagles is that in the 1970s and early '80s, New York took the lead in reintroducing bald eagles into the wild. Nye was part of a team that went to Alaska and brought back eagles that were housed, and then released, in hacking towers stragetically placed throughout the state. The first was at the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in central New York.
Later, Nye traveled to other northeastern states to train biologists in reintroduction methods. Those states then followed New York and introduced eagles from other environs.
"So now the population in the greater Northeast area - outside of Chesapeake Bay and Maine - is a result of all these eagles that were brought in, essentially recreating the population," Nye said.
One of the first places in the state, and the very first place in the Adirondacks, where eagles were reintroduced in the 1980s was Follensby Pond just outside of Tupper Lake. The Follensby eagles were housed, and then released, in a hacking tower at the south end of Follensby for several years in the '80s.
"Right there at the outflow, there used to be a white pine right at the eastern edge of the dam," Nye said. "That was one of the last active Adirondack bald eagle sites that we knew about. In 1950, it was active and then the tree blew down. That's one reason we chose Follensby Pond. It was isolated, undisturbed, good food supply and was a historic nesting site for eagles."
Although eagles haven't established a known nest on Follensby Pond, they have been spotted there by its owners, including Nature Conservancy staff. In mid-June, two eagles were spotted flying over the water during a biological survey of the property. Some of the eagles are believed to have taken up nests at nearby water bodies.
"You see them in here but they don't hang around because this is raven country," said long-time Follensby Pond caretaker Tom Lake, who found the remains of a dead eagle at the dam this spring. "You see them over on the Raquette (River) but I don't know of any nests."
Challenges facing eagles
Although the population of eagles has been increasing by 10 to 15 percent annually in recent years, the eagle population still faces some challenges in the future.
Every year, eagles die of from things such as injuries from fishing tackle, getting hit by trains while feeding on carcasses on the tracks and lead poisoning.
The past year, the DEC found an eagle had died of lead poisoning just outside of Tupper Lake near a nesting site. Eagles and other bird of prey sometimes die by feeding on dead carcasses, such as deer, that were killed with lead bullets.
"Everyone knows that lead is bad stuff," Nye said. "We don't want lead sinkers, we don't want lead shot over water, we don't lead in our paint, in our walls. We don't want lead. Yet think about the amount of lead that we deposit at shooting preserves and just in upland hunting all the time. I mean, tons and tons of lead are being deposited in the environment and there are alternatives out there."
But habitat loss is the biggest challenge facing eagles, Nye said. Throughout New York state potential habitat is disappearing due to development. This can make it difficult for eagles, which prefer isolation, to breed.
"In 40 years, are all of these eagles that we have now going to be surviving and successfully reproducing?" Nye said. "Is the habitat base still going to be there? What's our landscape and our activity level on the landscape going to look like in 40 or 50 years. To me, that's the single biggest challenge. It's so important to have land set aside, dedicated lands that you know will be available in the future."
But, for now, the future is bright.
While Nye is standing on the branches below the eagle's nest in the large white pine, he reaches over the lip and feels around for eggs that didn't hatch. He doesn't find any.
With a steady breeze blowing through the pine needles, Nye also takes time to put two tracking bands on the eaglet's legs. He also snaps a few photos for his records.
Below, Racette continues to hold onto the rope, occasionally taking instructions from Nye. Once Nye is ready to descend, he yells to Racette. Going down can be a big trickier than just rappelling down a rock face. There's some branches that have to be negotiated.
But the pair work smoothly together and Nye comes down without a problem. Once on the ground, he unhitches himself from the rope, and soon pulls out his small digital camera. He excitedly shows those standing around him photos of the young eagle he has just been a few feet from in a place few people have gone. Nye obviously has a passion for the birds.
Later, while driving away in his truck, Nye talks about how the population, from the earliest days of the reintroduction in 1980s has exceeded his expectations. Something he is definitely proud of.
"We (thought) we (could) have 40 nesting eagles in New York state," Nye says. "It's pretty amazing because all of our best sites that had excellent potential filled in immediately - national wildlife refuges, state wildlife management areas. All the places you would think eagles would go. That's where they went initially, but then it just kept going ... way beyond our imagination or expectations, from maybe we can have 40 pair to now we've got 200 pair, and there's currently no sign of it stopping. They'll become like crows."