Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Eagles play the Meadowlands

It may be kind of hard to believe, given the weather, but we've been spending a lot of time outdoors during the past few weekends. Despite the cold, the rain and even some snow, Ivan and I have been toughing it out in spots from Atlantic County's Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge to Wallkill NWR way up on the New Jersey-New York border, all in the name of finding as many bird species as we can before January 31.

After a great start on New Year's Day, the birds have been a little tougher in coming. Pouring rain one weekend kept us from doing much more than scanning large flocks of geese from the car. Trips to normally very reliable spots for winter ducks were a lot less than productive. And then, just as we were beginning to question whether the birding gods were playing tricks on us, we ran into car trouble and lost half a day to waiting for AAA and a long-distance tow.

Al and Alice, as photographed by Jill Homcy.
(Not at interchange 16W, but this is kind of the way
those eagles were perched.)
Little did we know, our luck was about to turn. Maybe we wouldn't see any new species for our January lists, but we ran into one of those classic birding experiences that seem to happen only in New Jersey.

Just as our tow truck driver was steering around the curve on Turnpike interchange 15W, I spied two adult Bald Eagles perched in a tree between the exit ramp and the Hackensack River.

Yes, you read that right. Two eagles were just sitting there like a couple of pigeons (well, big, majestic pigeons), watching traffic just yards away from one of the busiest roads on the Eastern Seaboard.

Finding perched eagles along the Hackensack has become a more common occurrence since a pair started nesting in a tree next to Overpeck Creek. The female, dubbed Alice by the pair's human advocates, came to New Jersey from Inwood Park in Manhattan, a fact known because naturalists gave her an identification band when she was a nestling. A thoroughly modern New Yorker, she was also equipped with a radio that allows scientists to track her location. Where her mate Al came from isn't known, but it seems that he likes city girls; they've been together for at least four years.

Like many folks who've set up housekeeping in the crowded Bergen/Hudson County corridor, Al and Alice have been faced with the potential threat of losing their homes to redevelopment. Their nesting and roosting tree is located on a landfill that's been slated for a mixed-use facility with offices and shopping. In another "only in New Jersey" move, the developer claimed the pair's tree needed to go in order for the site to be cleared of hazardous waste, while environmentalists contended the contaminants on the site posed no risk to birds or people. Ultimately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a report favoring the eagles, but the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection remains silent on the issue.

Al and Alice continue to move forward with their lives, regardless of the human decisions being made around them. According to the Friends of the Ridgefield Park Eagles, the advocacy group working on their behalf along with Bergen County Audubon, they're already preparing their nest for this year's eggs. With any luck, over the next several months they'll be raising at least one new brother or sister to add to the half dozen young eagles they've nurtured in their time living along the Overpeck.

And those eagles? Consider that they've been raised in one of the most densely-populated parts of the state, if not the country. They've grown up knowing about humans and our behavior, perhaps making them more likely to stay in the neighborhood rather than fleeing to more rural areas. Maybe in the not too distant future, we'll see eagles flying over Newark and Paterson and Jersey City just as effortlessly as they soar over the Kittatinny Ridge or the farm fields of Salem County.

We can hope.

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