by Michele DeLuca

“It’s an eagle!” said Greg Ecker with satisfaction, stepping away from his telescope so that a visitor could take a look.

Ecker, a wildlife technician from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, pointed across the Niagara River toward a young bald eagle sitting on a tree limb on Strawberry Island. Although it was hard to see, even through a telescope, the shape of a bald eagle was unmistakable.

Bald eagles are back on the Niagara River. They have been spotted above the falls at the mouth of the river, in the gorge by Artpark and in Youngstown.

There aren’t many of them. But their presence indicates that a 30-year effort to restore their presence in the area has been gratifyingly successful.


Pete Nye was a young biologist at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany when he was asked to initiate efforts to restore the endangered bald eagle population which had dwindled in the state to one breeding pair.

That birds were so badly polluted by the chemical known as DDT that their eggs kept breaking before the babies could be hatched.

For the next 13 years, Nye led excursions to Alaska involving helicopters, boats and a lots of dangerous tree climbing. Young eagles were carefully collected and flown back to New York where they were tended in release towers until it was determined they could survive on their own.

Over the following years nearly 200 birds were released in New York in a program so successful that other states facing declining eagle populations have copied the same methods successfully since.

As a result, patient bird watchers in the “Eagle Overlook” area of Grand Island’s Buckhorn State Park or at the bird viewing area near the water intake towers adjacent to the Robert Moses, just might be able to view the impressive, expansive flight of a bald eagle swooping above the dark, cold waters of the Niagara River.


There are 18 known eagle nesting sites in DEC Region Nine which includes Niagara, Erie, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany County, according to Ken Roblee, a DEC senior wildlife biologist, stationed in Buffalo.

“During the (winter) breeding season we can have as many as 48 eagles in our six counties,” Roblee said. “Because the Niagara River stays pretty much ice free it attracts a lot of water fowl, so eagles come to the Niagara River for the winter.”

That means, locally, there might be anywhere from four to 10 eagles on the Niagara river. “It’s increasing every year,” he said. “They’ve done very well.”

Eagles are a protected species and it is a federal offense to harm the bird in any way, but there are other dangers which can decrease the eagle population, including the wind turbines favored by many environmentalists and Type E Botulism, a commonly recurring natural bacteria that kills fish and birds, Roblee said.

“Even though (the birds are) coming back we can always change things if we are not careful,” he added.


Last summer a baby eagle was rescued from the Niagara River near Navy Island. It had apparently been attempting to fly when it was scared into the river by a hiker’s dog.

A fisherman brought the bird to the Erie County SPCA and Joel Thomas and his crew went into the long-practiced lifesaving routine they use to save an estimated 3,000 wild animals each year.

“We knew it was young. We knew it was in its early stages of development and that it should be attended by parents,” he said. Once the bird was stabilized Thomas and a crew of

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American and Canadian wildlife experts criss-crossed Navy Island, attempting to find an adult eagle pair that might look after the young bird. “We would have released it in sight of the adults,” he said.

When no adults could be found, the next best thing was to keep the bird until it was able to care for itself, but the SPCA didn’t have a big enough enclosure for the bird. The bird was sent to a wildlife rehabilator who was able to care for it until it could be safely released.


Wendi Pencille sometimes can’t believe how people behave around wild animals.

Pencille, a wildlife rehabilitator from Medina who cared for the baby eagle saved by Thomas and his crew at the Erie County SPCA, can recount endless stories of how people get confused about the difference between wildlife and a Walt Disney cartoon.

Once, at a nature preserve near her home, people were coming in droves to see a hawk owl. One person was throwing dead mice into the road in a knuckleheaded attempt to get the bird to land there. A woman even held a noisy birthday party near the tree where the bird was nesting.

Pencille understands that people get excited to be near wildlife. But, she wonders sometimes what in the world they are thinking.

Worse, she said, was after the public was first told about the bald eagles being released in New York, four of the bald eagles were shot and killed.

She understands why conservationists and wildlife rehabbers are tightlipped sometimes about the locations of the birds they are seeking to protect.

Pencille spent the better part of last summer looking after the young eagle found in the Niagara River. Then, early one quiet country morning, she watched quietly from a distance as the bird cautiously made it’s way out the cage door she had intentionally left open and lofted over her head and into the sky.

“There's no drug,” she said, “There’s nothing that can make you feel like I felt that day. What a thrill what an absolute thrill.”


Ecker, pulls the binoculars away from his face and searches the sky for more signs of eagles at the north Grand Island lookout just off West River Road.

The 19-year DEC veteran who spends his days protecting area wildlife, describes a world of great blue herons, ospreys, otters, egrets and eagles, all right within view of anyone in the region who cares to look. He recommended that those heading out to watch the sky purchase a guidebook to help them learn about what they are seeing.

“If you put in enough time you should be able to see an eagle,” he said. “It could be five minutes or it could be five hours.”

Ecker is planning to fly out in a state police helicopter this April to participate in the state’s annual eagle count. He’s looking forward to soaring above the Lake Erie shoreline, flying among the giant birds whose wingspans can reach 7 feet.

Any day that you can do that, he admitted with a slow smile, “it’s a good day.”

Contact reporter Michele DeLucaat 282-2311, ext. 2263.

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