Explore the nation’s emblem at their natural habitat in upper Pennsylvania
HAWLEY – Who isn’t in awe of the Eagle. A majestic bird that mates for life and lives as long as thirty years was named as America’s national emblem. There is much to know about the American Eagle, but nothing is more fascinating than watching them in flight with a wingspan of 6 feet, or dive for fish over 50 miles an hour.
Each year during the winter the Delaware Highlands Conservancy will host guided tours along the upper Delaware River. Starting in Hawley, Pennsylvania a bus will leave from the Settlers Inn or the Zane Grey Musem, a federal historic site, and volunteers explain why the eagles like to nest in that area.
The Delaware River water is clear, swift, fast moving and a major source of food for the eagles as they fly south from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. They come every year. They are very territorial and often they travel in pairs. If one eagle is spotted in a tree along the river, not too far away will be another. Occasionally a Golden Eagle will be seen.
They can be recognized mostly by their white tail and head but snow covered trees can camouflage them well. The female eagle is larger than the male and can weigh close to 25 pounds, whereas a male might weigh 16 to 18 pounds, according to Paul Gamer a volunteer and tour guide with the Conservancy. “Since 2007 eagles have been off the extinction list,” he said. Females also have a larger beak. “It takes 5 years to get a white head, and 5 to 9 feet in body length.” Immature eagles are brown and harder to spot.
“They like the shad run on the Delaware,” Gamer said during the tour.
By law eagles are protected, and a ten thousand dollar fine can be imposed even if found with a feather. They start mating in February. “I have seen nests 12 feet wide,” said Gamer. During courtship they fly in formations at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.
Fledglings can be seen in March and April especially in the Mongaup Falls area in New York where there are observation blinds and roadside pull-offs for viewing along the reservoir. It is very important to follow proper Eagle Etiquette according to the guides. It is illegal and unsafe to stop on the road. Most of the time vehicles are driving slow. Loud noises and honking will scare them off. It is best to use binoculars to scope them, and easier to see them this time of year when the trees are bare.
Many of the volunteers with the conservancy are retired seniors. Others are students in ecology or biological science and help with the eagle tours which are offered from mid January to early February. On Saturday, January 26, 2019, fifty one eagles were sighted on a four hour tour along State Route 42 and Plank Road in NY.
“The eagles have their favorite trees. About every 5 miles, there is an eagle’s nest along the Delaware River,” explained Gamer. Most of them are resident eagles and return every year. The nests are spaced apart over open waters.
Don Hamilton, outreach coordinator with the Delaware Upper Highlands Conservancy and a Resource Officer with the National Park Service said much of the land is protected through land trusts and easements on properties of landowners. “This river provides clean air and water and is a good source of food. It is a partnership river on private land ownership.” There are 30 acres of protected habitat. “The watershed of the Upper Delaware is still pretty much forested,” Hamilton said. The Mongaup Valley is a wildlife management area governed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The eagles come here at night to roost. Hamilton said on Dec. 22, twenty two eagles were spotted in one tree.
Nancy Garing of Honesdale, and owner of the touring bus company said she enjoys watching for the eagles and noted the numbers are down. In 2011 she saw over 80 eagles in one day. Gamer said often hurried honking drivers will scare them off, especially along the Tow Path which is part of the historic Delaware Canal.
The National Park Service operates the nearby Zane Grey Museum named after the famous prolific writer who once settled into a farmhouse overlooking the junction of the Lackawaxen and Delaware rivers.
During the tour Brad Orlie from the Eagle Institute explained the reason for weight differences between male and female eagles. Females weigh more because she lays the eggs for 35 days of incubation. The eggs stay in their nest for 12 weeks among the trees in the narrow forested valleys sheltered from winter winds and could hatch in April or May according to Orlie. “The eggs don’t always hatch at the same time,” he said. ” Some might hatch in July. The parents take care of the nest and take turns feeding them, once they are hatched.” The eagles are not friendly, although some are more adapted to people. “They are very inconsistent with what they do,” Orlie said. “The eagle is still protected, but no longer an endangered species.” He noted that over 600 nests have been spotted between Pennsylvania and New York.
Eagles can dive for fish close to 100 miles an hour into the water for prey which they can see one half mile away as they sit atop large pine trees looking down. “The talons are the size of a human hand,” added Paul Gamer. “They take their prey back into the trees.”
On the way back from the tour, a video explains the comeback of the American Eagle from its demise before it was labeled “endangered” in 1975. The breeding season starts soon as they conserve energy during winter. To learn more about the Eagle Watch tour and the comeback of the American Eagle visit delawarehighlands.org/eagles or contact the Settlers Inn in Hawley, PA at 570-226-2993.