At Centerport's Mill Pond, a dozen people waited on the bridge, leaning on the railing, eager to catch a glimpse of a national icon.
“Eagle!” shouted bird-watcher Christine Carrion-Alfano, a teacher from Northport and avid wildlife photographer.
A bald eagle, half of a male and female pair that have made Centerport their home, swept over the pond. Photographers, shoulder-to-shoulder with long lenses and jackets, leaped into action.
Decades after the birds of prey disappeared on Long Island, this spot is attracting hundreds of people, including devoted fans who track the birds' comings and goings. Today, there are six confirmed pairs and several other suspected ones on the Island, according to wildlife experts.
“I think it is one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time,” said Michael Scheibel, a former biologist for the Nature Conservancy who has tracked bald eagles here for years. “To see them on Long Island is a little surprising.”
The eagles are also in places including Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale and Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Early last year, a pair nesting on the Great Neck South School campus caused a stir.
In Centerport, dozens of photographers and other bird lovers gather for hours on the Mill Dam Bridge to watch for the big birds swooping across the pond, sometimes dramatically snatching up an eel and devouring it as they perch on a branch.
For some spectators, the sightings have a powerful effect, said Robert Schwartz, one of the main organizers of the eagle watchers. A Vietnam veteran who had barely left his house for years has showed up. A widow who recently lost her husband did, too.
“It’s having a tremendous impact on people,” Schwartz said. “The barriers of everyday life are torn down when the eagles are in town.”
Giovanna Warsaw travels 40 minutes to Centerport from her home in Holtsville to get in on the action. Sometimes she makes the trip twice a day.
“They’re just so beautiful to watch,” said Warsaw, 52.
“They’re finally back on Long Island,” said her husband, Dennis Warsaw, 51. “The chance to see them in the wild is just amazing.”
The eagles were first spotted in Centerport in early 2017, Schwartz said. He and others created a Facebook page, Bald Eagles of Centerport, in February that has gained nearly 9,200 followers.
The photographers hope to mount an exhibit of their work at the nearby Vanderbilt Museum, also long known as Eagle’s Nest, and create a children’s education program there, Schwartz said.
They also want to raise money to create a permanent photographer’s stand, mount a livestreaming camera near the nest and clean up and beautify the pond.
The bald eagle, for decades on the national endangered species list, nearly went extinct because of habitat loss, hunting and the widespread use of the insecticide DDT starting in the 1940s.
By 1970 there was a single known nesting pair in all of New York State, near Rochester, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. DDT was banned in 1972.
Starting in 1976, a state and federal program to reintroduce the bald eagle to the state brought in 198 eagle chicks, called fledglings, from Alaska and other places and released them, Scheibel said.
It worked. The eagles started upstate and made their way south. Scheibel believes the first eagles settled back on Long Island in 2006, when he spotted a pair in Mashomack. They were removed from the endangered list in 2007, but are still on the state's threatened list.
“It says something positive for the state of the environment here on Long Island that these birds are obviously able now to successfully nest and produce young,” he said.
Today, there are nearly 10,000 nesting pairs nationwide, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The DEC estimated last year that there are 323 breeding pairs in New York State.
In Centerport, the birds leave humans mesmerized.
“First you hear about it, but you don’t believe it,” Carrion-Alfano said. “So when I saw it I was actually truly in awe. I didn’t even take my camera out at first because I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”