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Rare birds: Eaglets take up residence at Connequot River State Park Preserve

One of the two eaglets at Connetquot River

One of the two eaglets at Connetquot River State Park Preserve. Photo Credit: NYS Parks

Two privacy-loving bald eagles are making themselves at home at Connetquot River State Park Preserve, raising their eaglets carefully shielded from view.

But one day, when they are grown, the eaglets might return with their mates, and perform some dramatic midair courtship acrobatics.

“They have an actual spectacular pinwheel thing; I’ve only seen it once,” said Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a membership nonprofit, part of the university family.

“They fly up, reach out and grab each other’s talons, and plummet to the ground; they swing each other around like a pair dancing, they are actually pinwheeling down through the sky … and then they let go before they hit,” he said.

The adult eagles in the family are one of just eight known pairs on Long Island that have nested in the towns of East Hampton, Shelter Island, Islip, Brookhaven, Huntington and North Hempstead, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife biologist Kelly Hamilton.

'They are monstrous'

Revered as the nation’s symbol, bald eagles have a diving airspeed of up to 100 mph, experts say.

That and their immense size — their wingspan can surpass 6 feet — partly explains why seeing them in flight can evoke primordial fear. “If you get close, they are monstrous,” McGowan says. “I would say there is something deep in our ancestral history that makes us impressed when we see a giant bird coming out of the sky that could carry us off.”

Bald eagle nests — as wide as 8 feet — are built at the tops of very tall trees out of sticks and lined with softer materials, such as grasses, with a perch on top for surveying territory.

Nest-building is one of the courtship rituals that helps synchronize the mates, McGowan said. "A lot of the things birds do actually stimulate them so they are on the same page."

At 9 pounds, males are smaller; females can weigh about 12 pounds, experts say.

Connetquot’s bald eagles might be descended from native Alaskans. Nearly 200 were imported from other states, mainly Alaska, after development and chemical poisoning, most notably DDT, caused the population of bald eagles to plunge by the 1940s.

New York only had one active nest by 1970, and it was unproductive, the DEC says. Two years later, DDT, which weakened their eggshells, was banned by the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection.

From 1976 to 1988, New York released those out-of-state fledglings, raised with a minimum of human contact, a process called “hacking.”

Only the hardiest and luckiest likely survived. In New York, just one out of every 10 all-brown eaglets reaches adulthood at five years of age, when the plumes on their heads and tails turn white, the DEC says. Bald eagles can live 20 to 30 years in the wild, the agency says. 

The success of the state’s hacking — the first such program for bald eagles — is one reason New York reclassified them as threatened in 1999, down from the more dire listing as endangered.

The state had 323 nesting pairs in 2017, eight of which were on Long Island, from East Hampton to Great Neck, said DEC wildlife biologist Kelly Hamilton.

Though the United States in 2007 removed bald eagles from its threatened and endangered lists, two laws — the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act — bar killing, selling or disturbing or harming eagles, their nests, or eggs.

Poisoning, pollution, hunting and loss of territory remain their biggest threats.

'These guys ares skittish'

Hamilton declined to reveal the exact locations of the Long Island bald eagles because of the risk that even a few visitors will frighten the parents into abandoning their offspring.

Bald eagles vary in their tolerance for people. Unlike a pair in Centerport, whose nest near a parking lot created some traffic jams, the Connetquot couple chose a remote site.

“You don’t want people coming here, especially as these guys are skittish,” said Annie M. McIntyre, regional environmental manager, state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “When I came here with the DEC, they did not tolerate our presence at all.”

Said Hamilton: “This year, I saw my first pair with a nest; that was actually the pair at Connetquot, it was a very majestic sight to see.” However, “You could just see their posture start to get defensive, not sitting on the nest, getting off the nest, and calling.”

So McIntyre and the DEC visitors sped away and a wide buffer was enforced until the eaglets had fledged, or grown wing feathers, and begun taking to the air at about 10 to 12 weeks.

Experts recommend observers stay several hundred feet away and report the location of nests to the DEC, so it can set up buffers.

None of the Connetquot eagles put in an appearance during a brief tour of the nest area last week, possibly due to rain. McIntyre later spotted one perched in a dead tree.

“They come," she said, "and they go.”

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