Though they are hard to see (and even harder to photograph), bald eagles have been regularly wintering in New York City for the past 10 years. From Riverdale to Tompkinsville, bald eagles can be observed fishing in the frozen waters of the city from December to March, only to return to their nesting grounds when the weather warms. Dedicated bird watchers have been hoping for signs that a pair would stay and choose a location within the five boroughs to nest. It appears that this is the year it may happen.
According to the National Audubon Society, a pair of bald eagles is building a nest somewhere on Staten Island. The Audubon Society is deliberately not publishing this location because they are afraid of harassment and poaching. Reinforcing the issue is that bald eagles are protected by no less than three federal laws, including the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which prohibits the harassment of the birds while nesting. What constitutes harassment is open to some interpretation, as different birds have different tolerances, but in this case what it means is approaching the birds too closely, which may cause them to abandon the nest.
I traveled to Staten Island to see the situation for myself and found a few surprises. The first was that the birds seem to be more acclimated to human presence than in other locations. In Inwood Hill or Flushing Bay, perched birds will fly off at the first sight of humans. Here, they calmly perched despite occasional foot traffic on the beach. Even more surprising was that a woman walked her German shepherd underneath the cliff they were on and they didn’t bat an eye — even when the dog barked defensively at me. Eagles have an inherent fear of dogs and shepherds are very close in appearance to wolves.
This lack of fear shows that these particular birds have some tolerance to civilization, which bodes well for staying in Staten Island to nest. Adding to my surprise was the observation that when a third adult eagle came into the trees, the female flew away and the resident male vocalized his annoyance at him. Such territorial behavior suggests that this pair has claimed this beach.
Since it’s still very early in the season, it’s impossible to tell now if they will continue to hunt, sleep and defend an area that is rife with development and such interactions. But the habitat is right: food is plentiful (which includes fish and waterfowl) and there is enough old growth forest in the area. The only question is, can they put up with the neighbors?
Yojimbot is an NYC-based photographer, nature blogger, and bird watcher.