Point out a bald eagle to some avid birders, and there's a good chance they'll nonchalantly acknowledge your find and continue their search for something a bit harder to spot. The nation's avian symbol, once an extremely rare sight, has made a great comeback from a decline of just one nesting pair in the state 40 years ago, so it's not a big 'get' for most folks who are out in the field regularly.
Like the osprey and peregrine falcon, the bald eagle is now marked as 'least concern' among conservationists internationally, but they're still on the state endangered list due to habitat loss and continued environmental contaminants. That means they're not an everyday sight, but the chances are pretty good that you'll find one if you're in the right place.
Earlier this year I decided to keep track of how many bald eagles I'd see during our adventures around New Jersey. I wasn't particularly focused on going to specific places like hawk watches that draw migrating raptors. Rather, to paraphrase John Lennon, I wanted to see if 'eagles are what happens while you're busy doing other things.' If I could find a bunch without really trying, it might prompt you, our Hidden New Jersey readers, to look up once in a while to see what you can find.
I was pretty optimistic about the project, but the results are a nice surprise. Unless an eagle lands in the tree outside my living room window this afternoon, I'll be closing the year at 20 in the state, and 29 overall.
You may be thinking, "well, yeah, you always go to those special birding spots, so of course you find eagles," and you would be right... up to a point. We found a few in predictable places like Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, where they make their homes and apparently raise their young. I may have counted the same ones a few times, but I was delighted to see one being chased by peregrines -- a sight that would have been all but unthinkable in New Jersey two decades ago. And of course there was our more recent visit, when I witnessed two in the sky with talons locked together in a pre-mating flight/dance.
Then there was the "thr-eagle" day when we saw two perched near the Parkway before we even got to the Brig exit. Once we got to the refuge, a third adult gave us an extended view as he set down in one of the impoundment pools for a little fishing.
You don't have to go to the big parks to see eagles, though. The really fun discoveries were in less predictable places, like the shores of the Rahway River within the new Hawk Rise Sanctuary in Linden. It was my first eagle sighting in Union County, and wonderful to witness in such a heavily industrialized part of the state. One of our readers later dropped me a line to thank me for posting the story, because she'd thought she was either crazy or hallucinating when she saw an eagle flying over Route 1 nearby. I have to admit I was a little surprised to see the bird where I did -- within several hundred feet of a ballfield -- given eagles' standard desire to stay out of range of human activity. Maybe this guy has become accustomed to our population density himself. Maybe he truly was a Union County bird.
Along similar lines, I was delighted to run across an adult bald eagle gliding above Helmetta Pond, a remediated body of water behind the old snuff mill in Middlesex County. The nearby pine forest apparently provides good cover for nesting, and good eating isn't far away.
And, of course, there's the granddaddy of all great restoration stories: the Meadowlands, home to a nesting pair for a couple of years now. Ivan and I were enjoying a sunset cruise with the good folks of Hackensack Riverkeeper when we passed two eagles -- one adult and one immature -- perched in a tree and no doubt scanning for dinner. It's the only place within sight of the New York skyline where a Giants fan/environmentalist rejoices in seeing eagles thrive (well, not Philadelphia Eagles, but you know what I mean).
I'll probably keep another eagle count in 2013, with maybe another bird added for fun. Pileated woodpeckers are always fun to seek out, and easily identified by sound and field marks, even without binoculars. How about you? What's your bird of the year?