Bald Eagles At Cheesequake State Park

Our national symbol, the American Bald Eagle, has routinely been seen near Raritan Bay. Not just one bird either, but a pair of mature bald eagles at Cheesequake State Park. Could this duo eventually be looking to make a nest and raise a family?  

If so, this will be the first pair of nesting bald eagles around Lower New York Bay, including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay, in more than 50 years. An amazing achievement for a body of water once considered too polluted for much life and largely left for dead by many people decades ago.

One pollutant in particular that did a tremendous amount of damage to local water quality and  to the viability of bird populations was DDT, commonly used as a pesticide. During much of the 1950s and 1960s, many people in North America were over-using chemicals, especially DDT, which was used in part for mosquito control.

The insidious nature of this chemical is it can silently move up the food chain and get into the diet of many birds, including bald eagles, and take calcium out of a bird’s system to churn out thin eggshells. So thin, the eggs are unable to support the weight of an incubating adult bird and the young bird inside will die from being squashed to death. A really terrible way for a baby bird to go.

As result, bald eagle populations plummeted around Lower New York Bay and its watershed. By the 1970s, there was only one pair of nesting bald eagles in New York State and only one nesting pair in New Jersey. The last known nest near or along Lower New York Bay was located close to the mouth of the Navesink River in New Jersey. It was abandoned by eagles sometime in the 1960s, after repeated egg failure.  

Thankfully, with reduced pesticide use,  particularly the use of DDT being banned in the United States in 1972, better habitat and species protection, and the reintroduction of young eagles, the population has strongly rebounded in both New York and New Jersey. Today, there are over 170 nesting pairs of bald eagles in New York and over 130 nesting pairs in New Jersey.  

Yet, for all this time there has not been bald eagles attempting to nest along Raritan Bay or Sandy Hook Bay, or on either side of the estuary in both New York and New Jersey.

Certainly there have been reports of people seeing bald eagles flying around the estuary. Last month, people observed seeing an eagle fly over Laurence Harbor, NJ along Raritan Bay. In the past people have also reported seeing bald eagles near Waackaack Creek in Keansburg, near Flat Creek in Union Beach, and along Sandy Hook Bay, Jamaica Bay, and along the Navesink River.

Additionally, bald eagles have found good places to raise a family not far from the edge of the bay. There are nesting sites in western Old Bridge Township and along the Swimming River Reservoir in Middletown Township. There is even an eagle’s nest near the city of Linden, NJ, just across from New York City. The Hudson River too in New York State from Kingston to Croton has been increasingly popular with bald eagles. In 2010 there were nearly 30 active nests.

Still, nothing downstream in the tidal waters of Lower New York Bay. Yet, this could this change sometime soon.
Over the weekend, two adult Bald Eagles were observed far out in a tidal wetland area near Bass Creek, a small tributary to Raritan Bay.  They seemed to be going through the motions of nesting in a long-standing Osprey platform.

Jim, a park naturalist at Cheesequake State Park, has been telling folks the pair has been spotted periodically for most of the winter. This natural area has been their over-wintering site.

Way out in the distance from Arrowsmith Viewing Area, I spotted what at first looked to me like a large Great Black-back Gull, the largest gull in North America, sitting high in one of the older Osprey platforms in the tidal marsh. Looking through a scope, it wasn’t a gull I saw, but a beautiful adult Bald Eagle, probably a female.

This majestic bird is easy to identify in adult plumage by its unmistakable brown body set off by a white head and tail and a bright yellow bill. Male and female eagles look identical, except the female is usually about one third larger than the male. The word “bald” in the eagle's name comes from a word in Old English meaning “white headed,” not hairless.

Occasionally this eagle would fly off and circle the wetlands only to return shortly to the platform to relax again. Now and then it would be joined by another bald eagle, mostly likely a male. They would preen and spend time close together to touch wings. Then one bird would take off and soar at a high altitude over the marsh, circling overhead and out of sight.

Could this have been pair bonding behavior? Eagle romance often consists of little words with various sky moves of elegance and secrecy over areas typically close to the water. These eagles spent a good deal of time during the morning and early afternoon flying around in the air over the wetlands in a show, which to me could only be expressed as amorous.

I think it’s unlikely, however, these bald eagles will remain in the Osprey platform much longer to nest. It’s not uncommon during fall and winter months for bald eagles to take over an Osprey platform and use it as a site to roost. Eagles will usually leave the platform when the Ospreys return in the spring.

Around here bald eagles always nest in trees, usually the tallest tree in the area. It may be a conifer, like a white pine, or a deciduous species such as an oak. A typical bald eagle nest is a well-built living tree near a river, lake or coastline.

I also didn’t observe the male bringing any dead branches or twigs to the site, which would indicate they were building a new nest for the female to lay eggs. Bald eagles usually lay eggs in January or February or sometimes as late as mid-March. These birds weren’t breeding this year, just going through the motions for what might be a busy breeding season next year. The pair of eagles are most likely unattached first time breeders, 5 or 6 year olds. This year might be spent getting to know each other to strengthen the bond.

It all goes well, there could be baby bald eagles next year at Cheesequake State Park. It’s the perfect location. With 1,610 acres of fields, forests, and saltwater and freshwater wetlands, there is good diversity of ecosystems for eagles to find a reliable food supply throughout the year. Plus, the park is just sizable enough to keep human disturbance minimal, since bald eagles do not tolerate much human activity and will abandon a nesting site if too many people are near.

While all this is good news, let’s not pop the champagne just yet. Though growing numbers of eagles are excellent indicators of a healthier estuary, potential problems for eagles persist. The bald eagle is still currently listed as endangered in New Jersey and threatened in New York State. There is more work to be done.

Especially in an highly urban and suburban estuary like Raritan Bay, Bald eagles will face many threats that might reduce their lifespan. The greatest threat is the loss or degradation of coastal habitat or waterfront property. Because eagles depend on shorelines for nesting and rely on fish as an important part of their diet, coastal development or redevelopment poses the greatest threat to a bald eagle's survival. Other threats include  people who still illegal shoot bald eagles for their feathers and talons, chemical pollution from plastics, mercury and heavy metals that can get into the aquatic food supply, and  power line electrocution from birds accidentally flying into the cables.

Without a doubt we need more research, restoration, education, conservation, and open spaces to help bald eagles survive and thrive in one of the busiest and crowded estuaries in the world. Please do what you can to help, particularly by reducing your use of pesticides and other deadly chemicals, and by supporting public funds for open space purchases.

If you are a life-long resident of Lower New York Bay and have never seen a wild bald eagle before, cross your fingers. An eagle couple might be moving in to start a family. We will know better this time next year.   

For more information about protecting Bald Eagles around Lower New York Bay, check out these local environmental organizations:

New York City Audubon

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey

The New York – New Jersey Baykeeper

For more information about Cheesequake State Park in New Jersey, click here

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

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

John Romano March 12, 2014 at 10:17 AM
......THIS .....is actually an exciting story, since a revered national symbol ...and more importantly a species of wildlife ....seems to have been 'rescued' from the brink of extinction.


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