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Bald eagle population is taking off Buffalo area plays a part in national resurgence

The national symbol has made a comeback -- as witnessed by its anticipated removal from the federal government's endangered species list -- and the Buffalo Niagara region is a part of it.

The American bald eagle population in New York State was down to one pair in 1976, but the most recent survey in 2006 counted 112 breeding pairs, a 20 percent improvement over the previous year.

The population also has climbed in Western New York, doubling from six nesting pairs in 2004 to 12 in 2006.

"They've been growing rapidly in this area," said Mark Kandel, regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, noting that the area's rich water resources provide abundant fish to support the population.

Even more impressive, 19 eaglets successfully fledged in Western New York in 2006, up from nine in 2005.

Twenty years ago, a bald eagle sighting in Western New York was so rare the state actively encouraged anyone who did see one to report the details.

"You came back and you told your friends and you talked about it for days," Kandel said. "Now, it's gotten to the point that it's relatively common."

Kandel said he has talked to people who have seen the birds along the Niagara River, in Springville and in the Village of Cattaraugus.

"We have even had sightings in Hamburg in the winter," he said.

Paul Fehringer, senior naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society, did a double-take earlier this year when he saw one far away from the large bodies of water that provide the birds crucial fishing grounds.

"I saw one in downtown Delevan, right on Route 16, just sitting on a tree," Fehringer said.

The known nesting sites in Western New York are in Zoar Valley, the Letchworth State Park area, the Allegany River, Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and its neighbor, the state's Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area.

There is also a nesting pair that is seen frequently along the Niagara River and is believed to be based in a nest on Navy Island on the Canadian side of the river.

Indiscriminate shooting and the thinning effect certain pesticides such as DDT had on the birds' shells all but wiped out bald eagles in this country.

Their successful return to New York is a testament to a DEC restoration program that began 32 years ago with the relocation of eaglets from Alaska and their hand-rearing, or hacking, here.

The program has been even more successful than those who helped get it going, including DEC senior wildlife technician Mike Allen, imagined.

"When we started back in the 1970s, we figured if we could get 40 territories, we would be doing well," Allen said. "I'm glad the birds didn't read that report."

The state also has a strong population of juvenile birds, those who aren't ready to mate yet. That's very important, Allen said.

"Back in the 1940s, when things started to go south, that was the thing they were not seeing, young birds," he said. "They are the future of the population."

Another indicator of the strength of the revival can be seen in an increase in reproduction rates. Most eagle pairs produce one or two offspring a year. Between five and 10 percent might produce a third.

"We had 30 territories that had three young [each] last year," Allen said. "That's 90 young. You get a year like that and it really inflates your productivity. We'll take every one."

Still, while the federal government is taking steps to remove eagles from the endangered species list, they remain on the state's list. "That would be the next logical step," Kandel said. Taking the birds off the state list "has not really been batted around, [but] that's what we're striving for."

Wildlife experts, noting a recent report in Audubon magazine outlining widespread declines in common bird populations, say they remain concerned about potential threats, which include habitat loss due to human development and toxins like botulism, which the birds acquire from contaminated fish.

"We've had at least four juvenile eagles [treated for botulism poisoning] in the last two years, all from [Western New York]," Allen said.


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