Meet the Bald Eagle Expert (East Coast)
As a boy growing up in New York State, I wasn't particularly aware of eagles nor did I know much about them. Perhaps ironically though, our Bethlehem Central High School mascot was the eagle. I always loved the outdoors and all animal life, particularly butterflies, and nearing graduation from high school I was torn between veterinary medicine and wildlife biology. I opted for a career more oriented toward the great outdoors and began at a two- year ag & tech. college called Morrisville in central New York.
There I was one of the first graduating classes in 1970 to receive an AAS (Associate in Applied Science) degree in the new curriculum called "Natural Resources Conservation". I then transferred to a four-year school noted for its wildlife biology curriculum called The College of Environmental Science and Forestry, in Syracuse, New York.
While at ESF I was trained in all the traditional aspects of wildlife management (i.e. deer, bear, pheasant, etc.) with little to no exposure to "non-traditional" wildlife such as nongame wildlife and endangered species.
Upon graduating from ESF with my BS (Bachelor of Science) degree in 1973 I spent the next nine months driving a school bus and saving all I could to travel around the country, a dream that came true in 1974. I spent fours months driving around, camping and seeing much of North America that summer, gaining an appreciation for the variety of habitats, animals and people living across our land. While somewhere around Vancouver, British Columbia I received word that I had a seasonal job opportunity with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the break I had been waiting for.
After hurrying back through Glacier National Park, the Badlands and other not-to-be-missed spots, I began my first wildlife job in September of that year with the Wildlife Pathology Unit. While not exactly what I had in mind for a wildlife biologist, my time spent in pathology necropsying (cutting open and examining) animals to determine their cause of death, was well spent and informative. I even saw a couple of dead (shot) eagles while there. Early in 1976 I was offered a job working as a technician with the newly created Endangered Species Unit (ESU) and I have been there ever since.
Shortly after I started with ESU I returned to school evenings to obtain a graduate degree, realizing that this was a minimum requirement for a professional wildlife biologist. Fortunately I could both continue to work and attend school at the same time, although my schedule was pretty hectic. For my graduate thesis research I chose to study the ecology of a population of wintering bald eagles in southeastern New York, combining work and school responsibilities nicely. In 1978 I received my MS (Master of Science) degree in biology and shortly thereafter received a full- fledged wildlife biologist position with the DEC.
Since the bald eagle was one of New York's most endangered species when our endangered species program efforts began, it received considerable attention and although the ESU staff was growing, eagles became "my thing" which I have clung to ever since. In the early years I was responsible for learning why the bald eagle was not successfully breeding in New York and for devising a way to both make them successful again and to restore them to our state.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
In 1976 we devised the first-ever project to attempt to return bald eagles to vacant habitats through a process called "hacking". This involved obtaining nestling bald eagles from areas where they were more plentiful, and rearing and releasing them in chosen habitats in New York in hopes that they would survive and eventually nest here on their own. I was extremely lucky to be involved in this project from the beginning and throughout its 13 year life-span. During that time I travelled to Alaska nearly every summer to scout out bald eagle nests, scale the giant trees and "steal" 20-30 young each year to bring back to New York for hacking. This effort has been hugely successful here in New York to the point that many other states have now duplicated our effort and New York now has a substantial and continuously growing eagle population again.
Of course my intense interest in wintering bald eagles continued, from the early days of my graduate research and we expanded our efforts to monitor and study the biology of wintering bald eagles in New York. Why are they here each winter? Do the same birds come back year after year? Where do they come from? How far do they move while on the wintering grounds in New York, each day, week, month? What are their critical feeding and roosting areas? These questions, and more that always seem to crop up, drove us to conduct extensive live- capture and radio tagging studies of wintering eagles, an effort which continues to this day. Early on, we used rather primitive capture equipment and radio transmitters, requiring extensive work by biologists and technicians in tracking the eagles manually from the ground or aircraft. Recent advances in technology now allow us to set up remotely fired (radio-controlled) capture equipment and to track bald eagles (and other birds) usuing satellites. This has made the biologist's job much easier and the data we get from each eagle much more complete. It has also forced us to become much more computer-literate in order to take advantage of his new technology!
I see no end in sight. The more we seem to know about the bald eagle, the more questions we seem to need to answer. Thus the research work will continue. Also, as New York's eagle population continues to increase I feel a personal responsibility to keep track of it, through monitoring of all the nests and banding of all the young each year. At only 45 I feel like I have a lot of years left in me to give to bald eagles.