You never what you will see on a gray summer day in New York Harbor. The diversity of life can be quite unexpected at times.
Recently, while kayaking in Keyport Harbor, I spotted a big hawk-like bird perched quietly by itself on a lone wooden piling far out in the water. It was early morning, humid, with a cloudy sky. I had no idea what I was looking at through a pair of binoculars. The bird must have been nearly three feet tall.
Could it have been a Golden Eagle? They are one of the largest raptors in North America. A magnificent bird, but probably not. Golden eagles tend to be rare around New York Harbor during the summer. The birds prefer to breed up in the tundra.
It had to be a juvenile Bald Eagle. Juvenile bald eagles look very different from adults. Until the birds begin to develop their trademark white head and tail, young bald eagles come across a lot like young golden eagles.
Immature bald eagles are almost entirely brown with occasional white markings on the underside of their wings and chest. As the young birds get older, the bill will turn from dark brownish-black to yellow and the head and tail turn white. It takes about five years for a young bald eagle to become mature and get their adult plumage after several annual molts.
Yes! It was an AMERICAN BALD EAGLE! The emblem bird of the United States. Spotted right here in Raritan Bay! A majestic bird and a magnificent sight to see no matter what age.
My best guess, this young eagle was about two years old. It still had a good deal of brown feathers all over its body, but there was just the right amount of white streaks on its back and under-wings, along with a pale belly and a large dark bill to make me think this eagle was two-years-old, at most three.
It didn’t take long for this young Bald Eagle to get restless as all kids do. It stayed in Keyport Harbor just long enough for me to take a few pictures, then it flew off to the north in the direction of Staten Island. This was the first time I had seen a bald eagle in Keyport Harbor, hopefully it will not be the last.
The good news is the American Bald Eagle is thriving in New Jersey and has become more of a common sight in much of the United States, thanks in part to the banning of DDT biocides in 1972 and the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973 which has protected the bird’s home and habitat.
The bad news is that observing a bald eagle is still a rare sight around New York Harbor. There are currently no Bald Eagles nesting directly around Lower New York Bay, including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay.
In the past, there didn’t seem like there were any good places for eagles to call home. Bald eagles require quiet places with clear water and plenty of fish; and tall trees for nesting and roosting. Plus they don’t tolerate much human activity around their nest. Qualities hard to find amidst one of the most urban-suburban coastlines in the world. Our waters always seem so turbid and busy with boats, kayaks, and beachgoers together with dogs fetching sticks.
Yet, things seem to be slowly changing. A pair of adult bald eagles have regularly been observed at Cheesequake State Park in Old Bridge Township, NJ. There is strong optimism they will build a nest and start to raise a family soon. This pair might be the first bald eagles to actually make a nest near the bay.
Bald eagles have also been nesting along the fringes of the estuary for years. There are nesting sites in western Old Bridge Township and along the Swimming River Reservoir in Middletown Township. Nesting bald eagles can even be found near the city of Linden, NJ, just across from New York City. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife estimates there are 119 active bald eagle nests in the state, a remarkable achievement when you consider there was only one active nest in the entire state during much of the 1970s.
The Hudson River too in New York State from Kingston to Croton has been increasingly popular with bald eagles. According to NY Department of Environmental Conservation, in recent years there has been well over 30 active nests along the river.
So where did this bird come from? It’s anyone’s guess. One common theory is that juvenile bald eagles will remain about 100 miles from their nest. If that’s true, then this young eagle hatched from a nest somewhere in eastern New Jersey or southern New York. Young eagles are on their own until they are about five years old, when they will start to look for a mate, build a nest, and raise a family.
It’s not an easy life for a juvenile bald eagle. Bill Nye, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, suggests that on average for every 10 eagles hatched, only about 1 will survive to adulthood. Only 11 percent of eagles are alive after 3 years of life. Mortality is highest for eagles in their first year of life, especially their first six months.
The most common causes of death are human-related and include collisions with vehicles, electrocution from power lines, toxins from pesticides and other chemicals, lead poisoning from ingested lead pellets, bullets, and fishing sinkers and eating poisoned rodents and other poisoned animals. Natural causes include diseases like West Nile Virus.
It obvious that more work needs to be done to protect open spaces and to improve water quality before lots of Bald Eagles will call New York Harbor home. Slowly but surely it will happen if we want it to happen and we are willing to do something about it.
Here are some quick and easy ways to respect wildlife, including bald eagles, from the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey:
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/