By Jeanne Sager
LACKAWAXEN, PA December 2, 2005 The early bird is going to see some eagles this year.
Folks who sign up now for The Eagle Institutes annual volunteer training will be out at the prime viewing spots for the nations symbol come January.
The non-profit center, based over the river in Lackawaxen, Pa., is entering its ninth season of tracking bald eagles in the Sullivan County area and its all done by volunteers.
Director and founder Lori McKean was working for the Audubon Society at its Eldred nature center when she first had the idea for an eagle tracking and viewing program.
At the time, she was supposed to be instituting a citizen-based water quality monitoring program for the society, with some activities that would focus on educating the public about the eagles in the area.
When the society left the area in the early 1990s, McKean stayed behind and built her own program which formally became The Eagle Institute nine years ago.
There was such a need for the eagle program that I just continued doing it on my own, McKean recalled. But it became pretty apparent that I needed to formalize that.
Now an education and outreach specialist for the United States Forest Service, working out of Grey Towers in Milford, Pa., McKean has long had a focus on educating the public.
And thats what The Eagle Institute does.
Thats what the volunteers do.
For three hours each weekend in January and February and the first two weekends in March, trained volunteers head out to public viewing sites along the Delaware River and near the Mongaup Reservoir in Forestburgh.
There they collect data that the institute uses to track the eagles and their habits.
But theyre also there to meet the people, to offer up their binoculars and telescopes for novice bird-watchers, to share facts and stories about the bald eagle.
The interaction we have at the public viewing sites is all based on education, McKean said.
With as many as 4,000 visitors stopping by the various sites staffed by institute volunteers, thats a hearty helping of education.
And the volunteers do it all.
They answer questions, they help them spot the eagles . . . they really play a hospitality role, McKean noted. They can tell you where you can get gas, where you can stay, where are other places you can see eagles.
Eco-tourism-wise, its a really great tool for the county, she continued.
Eagle-watching has grown in its popularity as the birds have made a comeback from being an endangered species.
Its a great winter activity, McKean said, because its inexpensive and offers something for all ages.
Its something to do with a house full of company, she said with a laugh.
Turning serious, McKean spoke of the wonder of seeing an eagle in its natural habitat.
Its really awesome to see a bald eagle in the wild, she said. No matter how many times I see one, it still takes my breath away.
This year, The Eagle Institute is expanding its offerings.
With the status of the Mongaup viewing site still up in the air (little water at the site could mean the eagles wont be able to fish and therefore wont show up, or it could mean the water will remain fresh rather than freezing which could draw more birds), the institute is opening up some new sites.
The pull-off on Route 97 in Minisink Ford that overlooks the Delaware River a prime viewing site will be staffed for the first time this year.
I think thats going to get some heavy use, McKean said.
And the institute will be holding guided tours each Saturday and Sunday during the eagle season.
Buses will leave the Lackawaxen office at 11 a.m. with guides on board to help viewers catch sight of the magnificent birds.
We never guarantee theyll see anything, McKean said. But chances are, if they practice eagle etiquette and check in with us to see where the water is, and if you spend some time you cant just drive by you could see up to a dozen in a day.
With 17 nesting pairs in the area (the nests are monitored, but the locations are kept private to protect the birds) and a winter population of up to 200 birds, theres a great possibility visitors will see even more, she said.
But having a volunteer on site makes the experience that much better, she explained, because people can ask questions and really appreciate what theyre seeing.
Even local people whove lived with the birds in their backyards their whole lives have walked away from the sites with a greater appreciation because of the experience, McKean said.
Folks interested in the training should head to the office at 176 Scenic Drive in Lackawaxen, Pa. (the blue-gray building at the end of the Roebling Bridge).
There will be a short classroom session beginning at 11 a.m. and field visits to the monitoring/interpretive sites in Narrowsburg, Minisink Ford, Lackawaxen and Forestburgh.
Volunteers should dress warmly with waterproof boots, hats and gloves and bring a snack or hot drink. The Institute provides binoculars, spotting scopes, hand and foot warmers, informational handbooks and data forms.
Registration is required. Call 557-6162 or 570-685-5960 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for the orientation session or for more information.