It’s been three quarters of a century since bald eagles — our national bird — nested on Long Island. Gardiner’s Island was the last to host a breeding pair in 1936. It wasn’t DDT that made the bald eagle give up the ghost on Long Island; there never were many nests here, after all, and hawks, eagles, and owls were commonly shot during colonial and post-colonial times.
This week I learned from Kara Jackson at the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island that a pair of bald eagles have landed and have begun working on a nest. It brings the number of breeding pairs on Long Island to two, the other being on Gardiner’s Island and kept secret by the island’s owners for more than three years now. Interestingly, both of these nests are in big hardwood trees, not on pole-supported nesting platforms, which fill the needs of practically all locally breeding ospreys.
A third eagle pair is hanging around Hempstead State Park and there is a good chance it may set up a home there. With only two bona fide nests thus far identified on Long Island it is too early to tell if the bald eagle will follow in the steps of the peregrine falcon, or duck hawk, another species that only started breeding on Long Island again 16 years ago after a long absence.
The comeback of falcon nesting on Long Island started at the Nassau University Medical Center. Why the peregrine pair chose the 17th-floor window ledge to build on no one knows, but in New York City, where there may be as many as 16 active peregrine nests, it’s a different story, and one that our very own Marge Winski, a graduate of Southampton College, knows well.
The first New York City falcons were “hacked,” i.e. raised from young removed from a nest outside the city, then cared for daily by Ms. Winski on top of the Con Edison Building in the center of the city. I had the pleasure of visiting the hacking site in 1983 and later, of going to the top of one of the World Trade Center buildings with Marge to check for the young falcons after they had fledged.
I certainly didn’t expect to see one, as the chances were slim, but Marge called out after about 15 minutes, “There’s one of them now.” I strained my eyes in the direction she was pointing and, yes, I could make out one of them gliding, then flapping its sharp pointed wings the way peregrines do. I had never seen a peregrine in flight until that day. When I grew up in Mattituck there were no peregrines, and in 1983 they were very much “endangered.”
Hacking was used as a method for bringing back the bald eagle in other parts of New York State and the country as well. You might say it was first tested out on perhaps the most endangered of American species of all. It was a tough call for the United States Fish and Wildlife service but one that panned out. In 1989 all 22 of the remaining California condors were captured and housed in the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos, where captive breeding programs were started. By 1991 offspring from these captured condors were old enough to introduce back into the wild. They were let go in the Grand Canyon, Utah and California national parks, and in Baja. As of 2013 the number of condors had swelled to 435. Of them, 237 were in the wild and 198 were maintained at the two zoos for further breeding and release of offspring.
Ospreys on Long Island were in a similar slump in the 1960s. DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides used to control mosquitoes and on field crops agriculturally were the chief culprits. They weren’t brought back by hacking but by banning DDT on Long Island, then nationally, and by erecting nesting poles on which the ospreys could make new nests, as most of the original tree nests had fallen into disrepair as the osprey population dwindled.
The peregrine falcon, bald eagle, California condor, and osprey are four examples of the success of conservation efforts and the value to all wildlife of the U.S. Endangered Species Act signed into law by none other than Richard Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973. Over the years many lawmakers — mostly Republicans — have introduced bills to weaken the act or do away with it altogether. But in all fairness, it was a local Republican lawmaker, Michael Forbes, in the spot now filled by Representative Tim Bishop, who did the most to kill them back in the 1990s during the Clinton years. The Endangered Species Act was only one of several environmental acts passed by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon, all of which have proven to have had significant positive impacts over the past 40 years.
Ironically, perhaps, when the Nature Conservancy purchased Mashomack from a hunting group around 1981, one of the “wish-fors,” according to Mike Scheibel, the present preserve manager and an early worker there, was the return of the bald eagle. There is yet much to do in the coming decades with respect to nature and the environment, but the bald eagle’s return to Long Island as a bona fide inhabitant is certainly a feat extraordinaire.
Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.