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The Eagles Return

>> Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The return of bald eagles to Onondaga Lake makes me happy.  See here for a recent news article on the subject.

I have been privileged to spot bald eagles around Syracuse for the past couple of years.  The first time I saw them I was on the lawn outside of Sainte Marie among the Iroquois on Onondaga Lake Parkway in Liverpool.  Sitting on the lawn with my husband and enjoying the view on a pretty summer's day nearly three years ago, I was sort of lazily watching a big bird circling over the lake, when I suddenly sat bolt upright and pretty much shouted "HOLY CRAP!  THAT'S AN EAGLE!" 

No one believed me except for my husband, who also saw it, and the volunteers at Sainte Marie who had been spotting them regularly and just sort of nodded and smiled knowingly when I mentioned it.

Then perhaps a year ago, I was riding in the car with my father on John Glenn Boulevard, not particularly near the lake.  While we were stopped at a stop light I spotted a mature bald eagle circling overhead.  I casually said, "Hey - that's an eagle."  My Dad, said "Nooo, I don't think so..." followed by a pause, followed by "Hey!  That really is an eagle!"

The point of this story is that it's sad that we should all be so skeptical about bald eagles returning.  Part of our skepticism, of course, is rooted in the near extinction of bald eagles because of hunting and the widespread use of the pesticide DDT and whatever else nearly did them in.  Throughout my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, bald eagles were sort of just a legend for me, almost as much as the ivory billed woodpecker.  I never really thought I'd see one, and if I did, I sort of figured it would be just one, once.  Somewhere else.

Then they slowly started trickling into the area.  The first time I became aware of them locally was at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which is maybe 45 minutes west of Syracuse.  In 1976, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation began a program to reintroduce bald eagles to the state starting at Montezuma.  It wasn't until 1980 that the first pair released from Montezuma nested in northern New York, but wasn't until 1987 that the first pair of bald eagles nested and successfully raised eaglets right at Montezuma.  I should say the first since 1956.

How wonderful is it that you can now see them most days right here in Syracuse?  On any given day you can spot eagles by going to the upper levels of Carousel Mall and looking out the windows with binoculars, or late afternoon (4-4:30ish) they often seem to fly over Sainte Marie among the Iroquois.  During the summer months, I also recommend boating along the Seneca River just north of Onondaga Lake.  If you don't have a boat, try a cruise with Mid-Lakes Navigation starting at Dutchman's Landing.  I have now twice had my boat escorted up the canal by a bald eagle who flew from tree to tree beside us, looking sternly and disapprovingly at the boating riffraff cluttering up his water.

Not only does the near extinction of bald eagles make it surprising to spot them here, but as Syracusans, the health of Onondaga Lake makes it surprising as well.  Poor Onondaga Lake is widely touted as the "most polluted lake in North America" and a few other disparaging nicknames.  I admit it is pretty bad, but also feel compelled to point out that it's improving.  There are plans for all sorts of cleanup activities to remove depositions of contaminants left by the historic industries of Syracuse.  For some more info on lake cleanup and condition, you can try the Onondaga Lake Partnership web site, or the NYSDEC web site, for starters.  Much of the improvement in the condition of the lake to date is related to improvements made by Onondaga County to its wastewater treatment facility. 

Most local people I talk to who are not scientists or bass fishermen snort derisively when I note that Onondaga Lake is getting better.  But darn it, it is.  And it will continue to do so.  The proposed cleanup is of course controversial, but even disregarding the proposed dredging and capping activities, the lake has been surprising scientists with how fast it has achieved certain markers of returning health.  For one thing, the variety of fish in the lake is fairly high.  According to Onondaga County reports, something like 48 species have been found there between 2000 and 2009, including some species that tend to be pretty sensitive to contamination. 

It's amazing what nature can do to heal when left to itself for a bit.  It has a long way to go, but at least I feel hopeful that it's going in the right direction.  Would I swim in it?  Not yet, but I would happily kayak across it.  That's progress.

While I admit to a twinge of anxiety about how much mercury the eagles might be taking in by fishing on Onondaga Lake (mercury is one of the major industrial contaminants in it), I also am happy that the lake seems clean enough to the eagles that they're here.  The thrill of spotting the massive, majestic birds right here in my own city hasn't worn off yet - I hope it never does.


Sneaksleep January 27, 2010 at 1:22 PM  

I know what you mean about growing up thinking that you'd never see a bald eagle. I saw my first ever bald eagle when camping in Canada in the early 90s, and when I saw several more on the next trip, I was floored. I'm SOOO glad they're coming back!

Anonymous January 27, 2010 at 5:07 PM  

WW, Are there Eagles in your area in the winter?
I thought I saw one the other day.

Woodswoman Extraordinaire: January 27, 2010 at 5:23 PM  

Anonymous, they're definitely here in the winter. They've been hanging out, sometimes in sizable groups, down near the south end of the lake on the ice. In fact, it's probably the best time of year to see more than one at a time. There isn't a great place to see them (the wastewater treatment plant and railroad tracks are in the way) but you can see them from the top levels of Carousel Mall.

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