By Ted Waddell
SULLIVAN COUNTY January 6, 2003 Its that time of year again.
The Eagle Institutes annual Eagle Watch began on Saturday and will continue every weekend through mid-March.
Eagle Watch is a program presented by the Eagle Institute of Barryville with a grant from the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) and the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Community Development.
It is a cooperative effort of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the National Park Service (NPS), Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Town of Highland.
The Institute was founded in the mid-1990s as a volunteer, non-profit organization to protect the symbol of Americas strength and pride, charged with the mission to protect eagles and other birds of prey and to promote habitat conservation through education, research and public involvement.
It is based in the heart of the largest wintering eagle habitat in the Northeast, encompassing the Upper Delaware River watershed and the lower Hudson Valley.
Each year, an estimated 150 bald eagles migrate to the region from Canada in search of open water, fresh fish and undisturbed stands of trees away from the intrusive impacts of human activity.
The undisturbed eagle habitat includes 12,000 acres of state land and miles of undeveloped shoreline along the Delaware River and its associated reservoirs, lakes and tributaries.
By the time spring rolls around, most of these magnificent birds fly back to their northern habitat, but an increasing number of pairs remain for year-round breeding.
Keith Startup of Port Jervis signed up as an eagle watcher five years ago after seeing an article in a local newspaper about the program.
I had just retired, had some spare time and wanted to make good use of it, he said.
So far, Startup has seen about 400-500 eagles.
On Saturday, he took a break from talking to visitors at the Mongaup Falls observation blind to share his views on why its critical to help teach folks about eagles.
Its important to teach people a little bit on how to be respectful by staying in their cars and not letting the kids or dogs run around because they are a skitterish bird, he said.
The 2003-2004 Eagle Watch marks Cuddebackville resident Richard Bardets second season as an eagle watcher.
Im interested in the environment and conservation in general, he said. One day I passed by the Eagle Institute, wondered what it was, so I stopped in to inquire and found out about the volunteer eagle watch program . . . to help other people understand the importance of the eagles and proper watching techniques.
Its the national symbol and an important barometer on conservation in our country, the welfare of our wildlife, added Bardet.
Lou Buscher of Willow really got up close and personal to the eagles with his 800 mm telephoto lens mounted on a Fuji digital camera.
For years now, the wildlife photographer has been helping to monitor nests and document endangered species. Along the way, Buscher has compiled an impressive portfolio of eagle shots, the best of which he donates to conservation agencies.
In the 1970s, there were no eagles to speak of, he recalled. They were just about extinct, but because of guys like Pete Nye [a NYS DEC biologist], we now have quite a few back in the state.
We were down to about zero because of the pollution in the Hudson River, added Buscher. We had the ultimate thing happen in about 1976, when an eagle laid an egg without a shell.
A few weeks ago, the veteran eagle watcher/photographer sat spellbound in the observation blind as 30-some bald eagles gathered on a gravel bar out on the reservoir.
Its a real famous bird, he said. Its a symbol of strength. Its a magnificent bird to watch, and I could sit and watch them for hours.
Saturday was fledgling eagle watcher April Schwimmer of Forestburghs second day as an Eagle Institute volunteer.
Asked why she signed up, Schwimmer replied. I wanted to get out of New York City and into the winter to see the beauty of the land I moved to. . . . As a volunteer, I can help people realize the significance of all living things on this earth.
Big Apple residents Chaise Freunzlich and Robert Werner spent Friday night at a boarding house near the junction of the Upper Delaware River and the Lackawaxen within sight of the public boat launch.
In the fog-shrouded morning, they saw a couple of eagles. Then it was on to the Mongaup Falls observation blind for another try at eagle watching.
I think its incredible to see them in their natural habitat, said Werner, as they watched an eagle perched in a pine tree along the misty shoreline.
According to a brochure published by the Eagle Institute titled Eagles Among Us, at least 13 pairs of eagles have decided to call this region home and often use the same nests year after year to produce continuing record numbers of young.
Recent data suggest there are almost 50 eagle nests each in New York and Pennsylvania, the result of an aggressive reintroduction program, ambitious protective legislation and education programs, reads the brochure.
Although the bald eagle has staged a comeback from the brink of extinction (and faces proposed removal from the federal endangered species list), the eagles habitat areas are under constant siege by conflicts with increasing pressures caused by development and disruption of natural sources of food.
To help bridge the human-eagle gap, trained volunteers are posted at several designated eagle viewing locations: Narrowsburg, Lackawaxen, Pa., Minisink Ford, Barryville, the Rio Dam and the Mongaup Falls Reservoir observation blind.
The volunteers provide information so eagle watchers can have the most informative and least intrusive viewing experience. Other educational offerings include slide presentations, programs featuring live birds of prey and interpretive displays/literature.
One of the most important duties of Eagle Watch volunteers is promoting the concept of Eagle Etiquette, so viewers dont disturb the eagles or negatively impact their habitat.
Human presence can stress eagles and force them to use precious energy avoiding disturbances, said Lori McKean, Eagle Institute director.
Eagle Etiquette tips: remain in or near your vehicle, avoid loud noises (yelling, car horns, doors slamming) and unnecessary movement, use binoculars or a telescope to spot and view eagles (window-mounted scopes work best because the car acts as a blind), dont try to get a little bit closer, refrain from doing anything to get the eagles to fly away from their perch or nest and obey laws concerning the protection of wildlife (violators face fines and/or jail time if convicted of disturbing, harming or killing eagles).
Eagle Institute volunteers monitor eagle activity and habitat conditions. The collected data is shared with environmental and conservation agencies responsible for making decisions affecting management and protection of wildlife. A nest watch program provides critical information about breeding birds.
For more information about the Eagle Institute, call 557-6162 (NY), 570-685-5960 (Pa.), e-mail them at email@example.com or visit them on the Internet at www.eagle institute.org.