For the past eight years, a pair of bald eagles has been nesting in a large poplar tree at the far end of a farm field in the Steuben County town of Wayland. Each year I’ve been able to photograph the nest with a telephoto lens until enough leaves emerge in the spring to conceal it, and every year I’ve watched the birds successfully reproduce. This year, I started monitoring the nest on February 1 to see if and when they would return and they showed up on February 4. Housekeeping is the first order of business and they busied themselves rearranging and adding sticks to their nest, or aerie, which is already more than six-feet in diameter.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) eagle experts tell me that at last count, there were 388 bald eagle territories in New York State. But only 50 years ago, the entire state bald eagle population consisted of just one single pair, which nested at the south end of Hemlock Lake in southern Livingston County. That aerie was discovered by amateur naturalist Thomas J. Rauber of Dansville. His observations and research led to the realization that their failure to reproduce was directly linked to DDT poisoning, which weakened their eggshells, causing the eggs to break during incubation. That discovery led to an intense DEC bald eagle restoration program that I consider to be one of the most successful wildlife conservation stories in American History. You can read more about it at this link: http://www.lifeinthefingerlakes.com/brink-extinction/.
Bald eagles mate for life and breed in mid-February. The female will lay from one to three eggs in late March and the pair takes turns at incubation for the next 35 days. Even during periods of severe weather, their dedication and perseverance prevails. I have seen a snow-covered eagle persist in sitting on the Wayland nest on several occasions.
It’s not unusual today to see bald eagles on any one of the Finger Lakes and other bodies of water in the Finger Lakes Region. Several aeries have been confirmed along the Genesee River in Letchworth State Park and near Conesus, Hemlock, and Canandaigua Lakes. The best places to see a bald eagle, especially during spring and summer, are at the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge at the north end of Cayuga Lake and near Mud Lock on the Seneca-Cayuga Canal.
I have witnessed and photographed bald eagle courtship flights on two occasions, during which I watched an aerial display of choreographed ballet performed with the precision of a pair of Olympic figure skaters on ice. In both cases, the birds flew in ever-widening circles spiraling upward in altitude until they locked talons and tumbled back downward, only to repeat the performance again and again. It was an unforgettable sight to see.