#FlightWatch: The Local Eagle-Spotting Outlook

Winter is prime time for appreciating bald eagles, as this once-endangered species soars around the Hudson Valley.

By Richard Guthrie

Few things in life draw the sort of deep-sigh feeling of awe as the sight of a majestic eagle soaring overhead. The experience can be inspirational, motivational, even spiritual.

An adult eagle flies by a juvenile perched on the ice. (Photo: Terry Hardy)

Even at a distance, a bald eagle perched on a broad branch of a sycamore is a mighty sight to behold. And here in the Hudson Valley, we can enjoy seeing these marvelous beauties from many nearby vantage points.

This was not always a possibility. In fact, we came perilously close to never being able to be in the presence of eagles in their natural environment.

Many folks are keenly aware that just a few decades ago, the bald eagle was biologically extinct, not only in the Hudson Valley, but also throughout northeastern North America. The knowledge of the biology of bald eagles and a bold initiative by skilled wildlife biologists in New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation helped spark their revival. The cooperation of several governors and federal agencies, which protected the bald eagle under the Endangered Species Act and banned the pesticide DDT, also allowed this dramatic turnaround in the fate of our national emblem.

A bald eagle perches in a tree. (Photo: Mike Oates)

It worked. And it worked big-time. Now we have an abundance of bald eagles, not only in the Hudson Valley, but throughout the Northeast and beyond.

Eagles are now in the valley year-round. But it seems that their favorite time to visit is winter. Not only do our resident eagles choose to stick around, but they are also joined by their kinfolk from up north — and even a few that fly up from Florida to spend some quality time with us.

One of the more interesting encounters with our wintering eagles is to watch them as they ride downriver on ice floes that have broken off from the ice pack up north. Why they do this is their own secret. But you can watch several at a time casually drifting along on their frozen rafts with the outgoing tides.

A bald eagle swoops in for a fish on the ice. (Photo: Terry Hardy)

When not hitching rides on river ice or soaring high up on wind-borne currents, most eagles spend their leisure time loafing around on trees along the shoreline. That’s it. They spend an awful lot of time doing nothing but hanging out; mostly alone, but maybe in groups of up to a dozen or more.

The adults, with their bright white heads and tails, are easier to spot — if you can sort them out from clods of snow hung up in the trees.

Immature eagles are harder to spot when they aren’t flying. But if you find an adult, look around nearby. There may be a young one not far away. Keep looking. There may be more — and more.

Immature eagle soaring over the Ashokan Reservoir. (Photo: Frank Beres)

Recommended regional eagle-watching spots:

Rich Guthrie is a graduate of SUNY-Syracuse’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. He is retired from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and now contributes his ornithology knowledge to WAMC, as well as eBird. He lives on the west bank of the Hudson in New Baltimore.