A pair of bald eagles and a younger bird that may be their offspring have taken up winter residency in Hempstead Lake State Park, offering a glimpse of the iconic white-feathered head rarely seen on Long Island.
They have teased park officials and bird-watchers with their sightings for two months. One of the adults yesterday soared over the trees in front of a group of South Shore Audubon Society members.
The raptors in the park near Rockville Centre have been spotted together or separately since November, often near Eagle Avenue. Their repeat appearances indicate they're staying in the area rather than just flying past it as other eagles have.
"We've seen eagles periodically," said Joe Grupp of Uniondale, who is research chairman for the Audubon Society chapter that has been conducting weekly bird population surveys at the park for five years. "The first two years we had flyovers. They were immature birds and you aren't really sure they were going to stay here," he said.
This year, "the birds have been hanging around for a long time," Grupp said. "But they're skittish and don't stay in one place too long" unless it's fairly isolated.
One of the adult eagles was spotted Thursday across South Pond, which is bordered on the east and west by thick residential neighborhoods and about a mile north of the congested Sunrise Highway.
"There's a lot of big trees here and they like to roost in big trees," said Sy Schiff, 86, of Baldwin, who said he has been birding since he was a Boy Scout in 1942. "Bald eagles are pretty rare on Long Island. But to have three is unprecedented."
New York had 173 breeding pairs that fledged 244 chicks in 2010, the most recent numbers available, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Each year, the state's bald eagles produce about 10 percent more young eagles than the year before.
But eagles don't like people, cautioned Steve Schellenger, who leads the Audubon walks in Hempstead Lake State Park, so the closest the groups have come to the raptors was about 200 yards.
"They're northern birds and they come down here in the winter," Schellenger said. The reason for more eagles turning up on the Island "is just population expansion" after their near extinction, he said, adding that the additional birds need an area to hunt and there's no room upstate.
Bald eagles can often be seen upstate in the winter as they move to the southern end of their range. The birds of prey were reintroduced in the Adirondacks and Catskills after facing extinction from DDT pesticide-weakened eggshells in the 1960s. A few eagles have also been spotted in recent years in Bayville and along the Carmans River in Brookhaven at Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge, where a pair built a nest last year but apparently produced no offspring.
Hempstead Lake State Park is home to a variety of bird species ranging from large ones, such as great blue herons and great horned owls, to a variety of smaller birds like woodpeckers, sparrows, cardinals and the ubiquitous Canada geese.
The Audubon group Thursday documented 255 birds from 32 species during a two-hour walk.
But the eagles took center stage.
"It's always exciting to see a bald eagle, especially because of them being so near extinction," Grupp said. "If they would nest here [at Hempstead Lake State Park], that would be even more exciting."
Bald eagle facts
ADOPTED as the symbol of the United States because of its independence and strength.
ONE OF THE LARGEST birds of prey (raptors) in North America, standing about 30 inches high, weighing as much as 14 pounds and sporting a wingspan of 72-84 inches.
HAS A BROWN BODY set off by a white head and tail and bright yellow bill. The female is usually about one third larger.
CAN LIVE for more than 30 years in the wild.
MATE FOR LIFE and return to nest within 250 miles of where they fledged, using the nesting territory. They use it for the rest of their lives.
FOUND only in North America, and currently in every U.S. state except Hawaii
PREFER UNDISTURBED AREAS near large lakes and reservoirs, marshes and swamps, or stretches along rivers where they can find open water and their primary food, fish.
Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation