The Mast-Head: Biggest Big Bird

The word is out about a pair of eagles nesting near the water in Springs. Not much stays secret in this town, and thanks to social media, birdwatching sometimes seems like a game of one-upmanship in which the first person to get a photograph of a particularly charismatic species can claim bragging rights. Most times, getting close enough to wildlife to take a photograph with an ordinary camera or phone is too close.

Some friends told me of a person in a pickup truck who was parked in a saltmarsh the other day for about four hours, peering at eagles through binoculars. One friend, worried about the effect of visitors, has been putting up “no trespassing” signs, including one warning of dire consequences for setting foot on Gardiner’s Island, which he had found on the beach.

Bald eagles favor fish, which is probably why the East End of Long Island is attractive to them. Osprey, with whom eagles compete for food and nest platforms, have been extremely put out, screeching angrily as generally indifferent and far larger eagles go about their business.

Clamming at Three Mile Harbor on Sunday with a friend and my son, I noticed an eagle sitting on an oak limb 60 feet or more above the water on a bluff. Nearby, a fish hawk, as my father called osprey and I did in my youth, mobbed it the way blackbirds do a red-tailed hawk that enters their territory.

After bald eagles were all but wiped out by the early 1970s in New York due to the use of shell-weakening pesticides, state authorities began to release hand-reared nestlings, brought to the state mostly from Alaska. By 1989, there were 10 breeding pairs doing their thing upstate. Twenty years later, the number has grown to 173 pairs and continues to climb. 

New York’s bald eagles have now pushed south and east into our area. Pairs, which mate for life, also tend to return to the same nesting area each spring, meaning that their offspring have to move on in search of spaces of their own.

In Springs, friends have seen people in a kayak coming close to nesting eagles for a better look. Whether it was too close they were unable to say, but their story reminded my of those knuckleheads who get out of their vehicles in the national parks to taunt moose, bears, or bison, and then, if they are lucky, get away with just an antler up the patootie.

I suggested my friends put up a perimeter of floating line and found buoys. I’d even help, I said. They declined, but the offer still stands.