Bald eagle pairs are nesting in record numbers in New York State this year, including, surprisingly, in an area full of people — Long Island.

This year, breeding pairs on the Island have risen to eight, compared with zero a decade ago and one pair five years ago, state officials said. They are among the record-breaking estimate of 323 nesting pairs across New York, according to aerial surveys and ground reports compiled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC biologist Scott Crocoll sees the eagle’s return to the Island as a bit of a mystery, because these raptors usually like to settle away from people.

He declined to say exactly where these winged Islanders nest, citing the eagles’ need for privacy, but said they’re living in parks or parklike areas, except for the two who landed on a tree this year on the Great Neck South School campus.

“Why now in the last five years they’re all of a sudden down there, we don’t know,” Crocoll said.

A bald eagle flies over Hempstead Lake on Dec. 26, 2013. Photo Credit: Uli Seit

This year’s state record of 323 occupied nests reflects a jump from 309 last year and 264 the year before, the DEC said. The Island had six pairs last year and five the year before, the state said.

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Bald eagles, a North American species, can weigh up to 14 pounds and have a wingspan up to 8 feet. They live near rivers, lakes, and marshes where they can find fish, their main food, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The bald eagle, still on the state’s threatened list, has been steadily growing in population since the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT, which decimated the populations of several species of raptors. Under a DEC program between 1976 and 1988, 198 eagle chicks from other states were hand-raised, then released in forested areas upstate, an effort that ended when many survived and stayed. As DDT washed into waterways and fish absorbed it, bald eagles were poisoned with the pesticide when they ate contaminated fish. The chemical interfered with the birds’ ability to produce strong eggshells, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“New York State has been a leader in the restoration and recovery of the bald eagle in the northeastern United States,and this news confirms that our rivers, lakes, and forests are capable of supporting our nation’s symbol for generations to come,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said.

It’s not clear how many eaglets have hatched this year. The DEC has been discussing a deal with the Federal Aviation Administration to allow aerial surveys for nests on Long Island, not an easy feat because of the proximity to major airports. Ground surveys may also be an option.

Conservationists believe bald eagles like the Island because fish are plentiful and the water is fine, or at least has cleaned up over the decades. “I suspect historically it was one of the absolute best places for bald eagles hundreds of years ago, probably in the United States, because of the quality of the habitats here,” said John Turner, conservation policy advocate for Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip.

Bald eagles were once common on Long Island, according to historical reports, until they were seen as vermin and killed in huge numbers in the 1800s.

Before the bird’s recent comeback, the DEC had confirmed the Island’s last breeding pair was seen in the 1800s, on Gardiners Island. Then in 2010, a couple spotted a pair of mature eagles and a juvenile on Gardiners Island.

But Jim Jones, a board member at the Volunteers for Wildlife in Locust Valley, thinks the success of eagles upstate has led to competition for territory, forcing the young and others to house-hunt on the Island.

In time, Jones thinks, bald eagles could be competing for resources with ospreys, which have made an even bigger comeback after New York’s DDT ban.

“There should be plenty of habitat for all of them,” Jones said, “so it’s a matter of figuring out the balance. The birds will do that if we leave them alone.”