Friday, April 9, 2010

Record-setting Year for Peregrine Falcons; Eagle Count Poised to Set Record - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation

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Last year proved to be a record-setting year for peregrine falcons in many productivity categories according to a new report released recently by DEC. In addition, preliminary results of an annual mid-winter survey indicate that the bald eagle population in New York State may be at an all-time high since the state began its re-population efforts more than 30 years ago.

Peregrines' Progress

DEC surveys found 73 territorial pairs of state endangered peregrine falcons present in the state in 2009, with 42 pairs recorded upstate. That's a slight increase from 2008, when 67 pairs were recorded statewide. Also in 2009, 61 pairs bred and produced 132 young, also slightly up from 2008.

"The 2009 report shows that it was a successful year for New York State's efforts to restore our peregrine falcon population," DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said. "The record-breaking numbers are a positive sign not only for the environment but also for the work carried out by DEC's endangered species program."

A peregrine falcon on top of a nesting box containing young falcons
New York has the largest population of peregrines in the eastern United States. Many nesting boxes such as this are located on bridges.

New York State has the largest population of peregrines in the eastern United States. Peregrines raise one to five young in nests located mainly on cliffs, bridges and buildings. They are known for their high speed-more than 200 mph-dives on their bird prey.

They had disappeared as nesting birds from the eastern United States by the early 1960s due to pesticide (DDT) residues, which caused eggshell thinning. Once DDT use was banned in the United States, an experimental restoration program began, involving widespread releases of captive raised birds from the Peregrine Fund, a global non-profit organization focused on conserving birds of prey. Through this program, 169 young peregrines were released in New York State from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s.

In 1983, the first new pairs nested at two bridges in New York City, and in 1985 two pairs returned to nest on Adirondack cliffs. The population has grown steadily since then. There are now about 20 pairs in the metro New York area and 27 in the Adirondacks, a pair at every major bridge between New York City and Albany, and about 10 pairs scattered through the rest of the state.

A young peregrine falcon gets a leg band
Banding young falcons allow DEC biologists to track their movements and better understand their year-round habitat needs.

At many of the urban nest locations, wooden nest trays have been placed to increase the falcons' productivity. Peregrine falcons do not build nests of sticks like most raptors, but instead lay their brownish eggs in whatever substrate is available. Protection and management is necessary to continue this species' success in New York, which means working with building and bridge authorities so that whenever possible their work is done in a way that does not negatively impact nesting peregrine falcons. DEC has had excellent cooperation from many agencies and volunteers in protecting, managing and monitoring this endangered species.

In the Capital Region, a pair of nesting birds can be seen at the Dunn Memorial Bridge during the spring and summer seasons. A webcam operates during the nesting season at this site and several others in New York State. For links to these sites and other information, including a link to view the new 2009 peregrine falcon report in full text, visit the Peregrine Falcon page on DEC's website.

Eagles Excel

New York has conducted annual surveys of bald eagles since 1979, and the highest official winter count occurred in 2008 with 573 bald eagles spotted. DEC's preliminary results for 2010 indicate that sightings may exceed this number as regions of the state continue to provide favorable wintering habitat for both New York's resident eagles and visitors from Canada. As of January 31, 459 eagles had been sighted, well ahead of 2008's record pace. New York's survey efforts are part of a national initiative that monitors the locations and numbers of bald eagles wintering in the lower 48 states.

A mature bald eagle flying over forests
In 1975 there was only one breeding pair of eagles in New York. By 2009, that number of breeding pairs had grown to 173.

The number of wintering and breeding eagles in New York reached its nadir in 1975 when, due to the ravages of habitat loss, indiscriminate killing, and DDT contamination, the state could document only one non-reproductive pair of eagles. That year, DEC launched its effort to restore bald eagles to New York. The aggressive program, led by DEC biologist Peter Nye, included years of collecting bald eagles from Alaska and transporting and releasing the young birds to carefully selected habitats around the state. Nye and other DEC staff continue to monitor New York's growing population. DEC's work has since been emulated by many other states. The state's Endangered Species Act has also played an essential role in the recovery of bald eagles, as well as other vulnerable species, by enabling DEC to protect critical breeding, foraging and migratory habitat.

Amazing Success Story

"The resurgence of the bald eagle has been one of New York's most amazing environmental success stories," Commissioner Grannis said. "This has been due to the tremendous commitment of many DEC staff over the past three decades and the ongoing cooperation of individuals and communities that recognize the importance of protecting essential habitat bald eagles need to thrive."

The corner of a bald eagle nest high in the treetops over a river
View from an eagle nest high in a pine tree on the upper Delaware River. This past winter's survey spotted 277 eagles in the Hudson and Delaware River basins. (Photo: Peter Nye)

Bald eagles generally require and seek out open water where they find their preferred food-fish or waterfowl. Several areas of New York, with essential open-water wintering habitats, host hundreds of eagles each winter, many coming from northern Canadian provinces. By early January, the birds have arrived at their annual wintering grounds, providing a good opportunity to track how the overall population is faring.

At the start of the survey in early January, DEC works with the New York State Police Aviation Unit to conduct aerial observations of the state's largest known wintering habitats. This information is supplemented with reports from dozens of volunteers throughout the state who are on the ground.

During last month's aerial survey, 101 eagles were identified along the St. Lawrence River (a record), 30 along Lake Champlain, 277 in southeast New York (the Hudson and Delaware river basins), and 51 in western New York (Allegheny River and Lake Erie basins). This winter's count is expected to be higher than previous years because of prolonged periods of cold weather and extensive ice conditions - factors which can draw more eagles in from Canada and concentrate them within a few suitable wintering habitats in New York. Additional eagle reports will be added to these totals as volunteers' ground counts are reviewed.

For the past several years, as many as 15,000 bald eagles annually were counted across the nation, with the northeast region seeing the greatest increase in overall numbers of wintering eagles since 1986. The 2010 survey was especially important as it marked the next scheduled update for a comprehensive 25-year national and regional trend analysis.

The good news in winter eagle numbers comes on the heels of another record-breaking breeding season for bald eagles in New York. In 2009, 173 breeding pairs were confirmed to have successfully raised (fledged) 223 young.

More information about bald eagles in New York State can be found on the Bald Eagle page of DEC's website.