There is an excitement when seeing an American Bald Eagle in the wild. In recent years, the east end of Long Island has had an influx of American bald eagles nesting in what Michael Scheibel, The Natural Resources Manager of the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, called, “One of the greatest conservation victories on Long Island.” According to famed historian Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson as a boy remembers being told how to search for eagles. Jefferson said to look for the highest perches of the tallest trees. He claimed he had trained his eyes to spot them.
There are now eagle nests sprinkled about the east end. It seems to be a secret locals keep amongst themselves. They want to preserve the sanctity of the eagles and not turn their nests into “tourist attractions.” However, that doesn’t stop the eagles from showing up at the wharf in Sag Harbor or flying above the South Ferry to Shelter island. They show up at Montauk Highway on the way to Hither Hills. They seem to show up when least expected. It is a thrill to be driving down Shrubland Road near National Golf Links and watch a bald eagle land on a tree. Seeing two flying side by side is amazing. Their size, majesty and colors shock and thrill. A mature bald eagle has a wingspan of somewhere between 5.9 to 7.5 feet!
Many believe it was the vision and efforts of Dennis Puleston of the E.D.F. (Environmental Defense Fund) that helped bring the eagles safely back to Long island. He identified way back in the late 1960s the dangers of DDT and its harm to Long Island. His voice then started a process to eradicate its use.
Becoming an American Bald Eagle is a process. Eagles are born in nests that are usually in the tallest tree of a group of large trees. The nests start around 4 to 5 feet in diameter and usually are 2 to 4 feet deep. The largest one ever reported is 9.5 feet in diameter and an amazing 20 feet deep. After they are born, the immature eaglets have mostly dark heads and tails although their bodies are “mottled” with white in varying amounts. It takes 4-5 years for them to fully develop into the white-headed bald eagle we all can identify. Many see the young eaglets not realizing they are young bald eagles. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The young eagle will spend the next 4 years of its life wandering across eastern North America looking for summering and wintering areas where food is accessible.” The same report mentioned that the mortality rate for eagles during their first year of life is greater than 50%, but once they have learned to hunt and forage successfully, their chances of reaching adulthood are good. The average life span of an American bald eagle is 15-30 years. The oldest known life span in the wild is 38 years.
Amazingly, not until age 4 does the bald eagle seek a mate and establish a territory. The territory is usually located within 250 miles of the nest where the eagle was hatched.
Sometimes you may see an eagle with a fish in its claws. An American bald eagle consumes an average of between 1 and ½ lbs. of food each day. Yet they don’t actually eat every day. An eagle’s diet is an array of all sorts of fish such as herring, shad, and catfish depending on what’s available. Bald eagles also eat birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates such as crabs. They also indulge in mammals including rabbits and muskrat. They have been known to grab small dogs and cats, too. If you are worried about your small dogs and cats, the lift capacity of bald eagles ranges from 3 to 4 pounds. The penalty since 1972 for killing a bald eagle is a $5000-$10,000 fine with more than 2 years in prison if done a second time.
An interesting factoid is that the debate that went on among our founding fathers in choosing the “National Bird.” Benjamin Franklin wanted it to be the turkey but was outvoted in favor of the bald eagle. Now both are showing up all over the east end.