By the dawn’s early light
Beverly Chasinov took her usual route to work one recent Monday morning, stopping her car for a just few minutes at the small bridge crossing the Carmans River in Brookhaven, when she saw a rare sight — wings spanning nearly 7 feet across, a bald eagle soared overhead. An avid nature photographer, Chasinov whipped out her trusty Canon Rebel to capture the moment on film.
“A gentleman was there fishing and asked what I was taking photos of and I pointed out the eagle,” she said. Chasinov, a resident of Mastic Beach, recalled spotting the bird flying over the northern portion of the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. “I took a photo there last year — the same time of year — and I saw the bird sitting on a branch but it was fuzzy, but when we looked closer there were two immature bald eagles sitting next to the bird,” Chasinov continued, adding, “they are having babies.”
Naturalists like Chasinov are seeing a resurgence of the birds in areas around the 2,550-acre wildlife refuge in recent years. Chasinov herself first spotted one of the birds standing on a log on the river back in 2007. Since then, others have spotted the birds as far north as the Upper and Lower Yaphank lakes, as far west as Bubbles Falls in Oakdale and as far east as the Elizabeth Morton Wildlife Refuge in Noyac. But it is not clear how many birds there are, or where the birds — known to have a wide hunting range — are nesting.
“Wertheim is so gigantic, they can be anywhere and there are so many places the public is not allowed to go,” she said.
Brookhaven resident Mike Busch encountered one of the birds — out of self-described sheer luck — when he was snapping a photo of the full moon over the Carmans River.
“I was looking at the moon and into my frame came the bald eagle,” he said. “It gave me a heart attack.”
Since then, Busch has spotted the birds roosting at a location along the Carmans, though he does not feel comfortable divulging exactly where. He has also been witness to spectacular territorial displays between the birds and ospreys that also hunt along the river. Busch has often seen ospreys attacking the eagles, he said.
“They are in a constant state of war,” he said. “Seriously, its amazing. I have a picture of an osprey attacking [a bald eagle] and the eagle did this crazy thing where he flips upside down to put his talons upside down [to defend itself]. They are big and not as moveable as the ospreys.”
Busch said the birds are not always easy to find, though.
“You’ve got to look, but they are there,” he said. “The last time I saw them was the day before the hurricane.”
The first time naturalist Anthony Graves saw the eagles was two years ago. Graves, who lives in Brookhaven, saw one of the birds trying to take a fish away from an osprey, and then later in the season, he saw two of them together along the Carmans River. He has not seen them since then, but knows of others who have seen the birds at the Upper and Lower Yaphank lakes.
“I think there are breeding populations both along the Hudson River and in Connecticut and I think the eagles are reclaiming some of their former range,” he said. “Their populations are building back and so as they build back, they are reclaiming areas that they have been gone from for a long time.”
Graves said the birds’ population fell off in the early 1900s, when they were persecuted by farmers believing the birds would take their livestock, and later poisoned by the pesticide DDT, eventually leading to their placement on the endangered species list. But the birds have since made resurgence in New York and elsewhere, due, in part, to the list’s protection and the ban on DDT.
“I think that it is great they are returning to their former habitat,” he said.
Friends of the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge president Claire Goad described the sightings as pretty much a hit or miss, even for the experienced birder.
“It is something that you never know when you are going to see them,” she said.
Wertheim biologist Monica Williams said the birds can most often be seen from the refuge’s overlook, though she agreed it is a hit or miss type of situation. Williams and her colleagues have seen both mature and juvenile birds in the past, though no nests have been located. The birds have, however, been spotted as recently as last December, but when the refuge conducted a bird survey in January, the birds were nowhere to be found. In the meantime, the refuge is encouraging visitors to log their own sightings at the visitor’s center so that there is a record.
Williams, who saw a bald eagle on her rounds just three weeks ago, said the sightings could be opportunistic, adding, “but when you see them it always blows my mind; it is an awesome sight to have.”
But not everyone is excited about the eagle sightings.
People will pull their cars over and look if they see Chasinov taking photos, but it’s not reciprocal for the eagles. The eagles — at least for now, seem to only be concerned with hunting, flying, sunning themselves, and the occasional osprey — remain unaffected by their human observers.
“They don’t even pay attention,” she said.
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