The Early Saga of the Bald Eagles on the Ashokan Reservoir

(This early chapter in the saga of the Bald Eagles who nest at the Ashokan Reservoir—a story that is both triumph and soap opera—appeared in the September 4, 1997 Woodstock Times.)

As manager of the Lazy Meadow motel on Route 28 in Mount Tremper, Chuck Davis has decorated his apartment with the trappings of the outdoor life: a pair of wooden snowshoes hangs near an Adirondack pack basket. His guns stand in a spotless glass cabinet. A mounted buck’s head commands the room with black marble eyes. Davis owns an easy pet, a ball python that lies motionless in an oak terrarium for most of the week between mice. But Davis’s real passion lies elsewhere.

From his freezer, he pulls a small tragedy from this past spring, a large baggie containing a scrawny bird tufted with downy white feathers that has started to smell. It’s the bald eagle chick he found caught in the branches after the eagle nest on the Ashokan Reservoir toppled out of its tree during a heavy wind storm at the end of April. “Now I don’t know what to do with all my free time,” he complains. In recent years, he has spent countless hours down on the reservoir monitoring the nest for the state Department of Environmental Conservation from February through July, watching the eagles hatch and raise their young. Now he’s taken up fly fishing, but it isn’t the same.

Davis plans to give the frozen eagle chick to his supervisor, Peter Nye of the DEC, who leads the effort that has brought the bald eagles back from near extinction in the state. In 1976, New York had one last pair of nesting eagles after the ravages of DDT. Nye’s program began importing from Wisconsin and then Alaska baby eagles, which they reared on manmade “hacking” towers and released to the wild, hoping the birds would settle in New York State. At first, the conservationists didn’t even know if these chicks could learn to fly without adult eagles as guides, but their experiment worked. In 1980, the first hacked pair nested and gave birth. “They were brother and sister, but that’s another story,” Nye says. The program ultimately released 198 young eagles before reaching its goal of 10 breeding pairs in 1998. Now multiplying on their own, the eagles have steadily increased to 35 nesting pairs who produced 43 young in 1997. Two decades ago, a dead chick like the Ashokan’s would have been a disaster, but now it’s simply a harsh fact of nature.

Since he began monitoring the nest in 1992, Davis has followed a family saga worthy of popular fiction. On a cold St. Patrick’s Day in 1993, the female made the mistake of leaving the nest for three hours after an unknown eagle invaded the area. She returned to sit on her egg for 80 days, much longer than the 30 to 35 days needed to hatch a chick. After she finally quit, Davis and his partner used climbing gear to reach the empty nest, finding what almost looked like a dull white chicken egg lying on the dried grass that the eagles had scattered over their fish remains to keep the flies down. The egg had frozen in March and never developed beyond a liquid embryo.

The previous spring had been even stranger. Early one morning in May, Davis settled behind his blind 500 yards from the nest and began taking notes. By 8 a.m., the male had flown off to fish, leaving his mate, known as X-13, to care for their eight-day-old chick. Forty minutes later, Davis heard a series of agitated calls, a high screeching chatter unlike anything he had heard before, and when he looked again, he saw the male standing on a branch by the nest, obviously upset. The female in the nest wasn’t X-13. It was a new eagle, picking at a carp from the nest with blood glistening on her beak in the early morning light. It turned out that the intruder had driven X-13 from the nest and killed the chick. Because X-13 wore a radio transmitter, Davis and Nye found her that afternoon miles down the reservoir shoreline, lying wounded on the ground. “She let us get real close, but we couldn’t capture her,” Davis says. “Several days later, he watched helplessly as the intruder also found X-13 and dive bombed her with her talons out for the kill. Lying on her back, X-13 slid under a pine bough that cushioned the attack and saved her life. Several days later, her transmitter faded out, so X-13 disappeared, only to be found again in 1995 nesting on the Cannonsville Reservoir with a new mate from Pennsylvania.

Although memorable, this battle wasn’t unique. At the Rondout Reservoir a resident female eagle chased an intruder down the road into the windshield of an oncoming car. “There’s probably a lot more of this activity than biologists ever knew about, especially among females,” Nye says. “They’ll go in and do battle and take over.”

In 1994, the Ashokan eagles finally had good luck, producing two chicks. Nye climbed the tree and added a third, a foster chick from Ohio, which the family took into their own. By July, the young birds, as large as adults but still dark brown from head to tail, were hopping around the crowded nest, tightrope walking the branches and flapping their big wings. Who would dare to go first? Davis missed the first flight, but arrived in time to see the fledgling perched on a branch 100 yards down the shoreline, calling to her siblings in the nest. Flying back, however, he missed, crashing into the nest, knocking branches loose, and finding himself hanging upside down by his talons. The other two young eagles waddled over to the nest’s edge and seemed to shake their heads at his foolishness. “That was one of the funniest things I’ve seen,” Davis says. “He finally fell and flopped into a tree.”

In 1995, the eagles produced one chick, and in 1996, two more. When the chicks are five to eight weeks old, Nye climbs up the tree like a pediatrician making an annual family checkup. He verifies the number of chicks, gathers any eggshells to test for any thinness from DDT lingering in the environment, investigates what the birds have been eating, looks into the chicks’ ears for maggots, and bands them for future identification. Although he has detected high mercury levels in eggshells at one or two sites in the state, the chicks on the Ashokan Reservoir have been perfectly healthy. This year the parents began incubating by the middle of March in what seemed like another routine year until the heavy winds blew most of their nest right out of the tree. As disappointed as Davis was, Nye wasn’t surprised. In building nests, eagles drop their sticks into a crotch in the branches and hope that the structure holds. “They have no idea how secure the nest is,” he says. “Some eagles seem to lose their nest every year or two. The nest on the Ashokan had a good life span.”

In the past, his teams often reinforced unstable nests with two-by-four boards, but as the birds have grown in number, he has become more willing to let them do their own rebuilding. On the Ashokan, however, the eagles have found such a successful home that Davis wants to lure them back to the same nest this winter by repairing much of the damage for them this summer. After hoisting himself up the tree with climbing gear, he will rebuild the nest stick by stick.

In many ways, the Ashokan Reservoir is an ideal spot for bald eagles. The fishing is great, as carp sun themselves on the water’s surface, easy prey for an eagle with eyesight equivalent to human binoculars with 20-power magnification. When the reservoir freezes, the birds fish along the Esopus Creek, and eat deer pulled down by coyotes on the ice. From the central causeway Davis once saw 14 eagles on the frozen reservoir. The birds also find seclusion on this protected land. Although the nest sits in plain sight, Davis has watched bass fishermen paddle underneath without noticing the eagles overhead. Unlike some birds, eagles won’t tolerate much human activity around their nests, so Davis stays well hidden in a blind 500 yards from the nest. But he’s convinced the eagles know him by now. “They’ll fly 10 feet over my head,” he says. They can startle him, snapping a dead tree branch on the fly with a “crack” like a rifle shot. Or they can amaze him, ambushing other eagles that fly unwittingly into their range. With talons spread like knives, the birds engage in spectacular aerial combat, swooping and rolling and fleeing to safety. And at times they mystify him. One hot summer evening an eagle landed on a stump at the water’s edge, then waded into the placid reservoir up to its white neck. Davis still shakes his head in bafflement over that one.

Since 1994, Kurt Boyer of West Shokan has manned the blind with Davis, captivated by eagles in his own way. Before seeing one in the wild, he had already named his workshop business Eagle Signs and painted an eagle on the side of his green and tan pickup truck. When Davis worked as the recycling coordinator at the Olive transfer station, Boyer often said hello on his dump runs. “I talked to Chuck for a year before he let me in on his little secret,” he says. But he has been rewarded by his duties monitoring the nest. Inspired by the Lakota Sioux, he hoped to find an eagle feather as a sacred emblem. For a year-and-a-half, he waited, featherless, while Davis seemed to find feathers all the time. Finally, he happened to take a video camera down to the blind when a feather fell from the nest into the water. “If drifted 500 yards across the bay right to my feet,” Boyer says. “I was in tears. I made it into a necklace and gave it to my wife in our wedding ceremony.”

Other people hardly need such patience to admire bald eagles in the Catskills. “I see them all the time when I’m driving on Route 28,” Davis says. Just look closer at the turkey vultures overhead. “Nine times out of 10 it is a turkey vulture,” he says, but the tenth time the wings will appear as flat as a plank rather than upwardly titled in a shallow V. And unlike vultures circling for smells, the eagles fly as if they’re going somewhere. “They’re like the Blue Angles compared to Cessna planes,” says Boyer of eagles and vultures. Knowing the difference, he has now seen eagles from his front door. This winter he and Davis hope the eagles return to their nest on the reservoir, so they can watch the birds sit through the snow and the sunshine, trying again to add to the growing tribe of bald eagles in New York.

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