If you haven’t spotted the stark white head of a bald eagle somewhere in the Buffalo Niagara sky, it might be time to get out of the house more often.
Eagles are back in historically high numbers, according to a recent report by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC reported a record-high 442 bald eagle breeding territories statewide in 2016, including 58 spots in six Western New York counties, including Erie, Niagara, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. That's up from 38 spots in the region in 2012.
“It’s an astonishing number,” said Jim Landau, a count coordinator from the Hamburg Hawk Watch.
DEC officials are cagey about publicizing the exact locations of the eagle nests because they don't want people disturbing them.
Several of the eagles’ general territories are already pretty well known, though.
Regular bald eagle sightings have been made along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and in the Cattaraugus Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek and upper and lower Niagara River corridors, including at Buffalo Harbor.
“Anyone that wants to see a bald eagle in Western New York doesn’t have to travel far to see one,” said Jay Burney, the chair of the Times Beach Nature Preserve.
Burney spots bald eagles flying or perched at Times Beach frequently.
The most well-known breeding pair in the region are probably on Strawberry Island.
Bald eagles have been spotted there regularly over the past five years.
The DEC confirmed two eaglets hatched there this spring.
Many of the sightings have been along the more populated areas of the waterfront, but DEC officials said much of the populations’ territory is spread far and wide across the region.
And, as land uses in the region shift from agriculture back to forested areas, it can only add habitat for bald eagles.
“Most of them are not along the lake shore,” said Scott Crocoll, a DEC biologist. “Most of them are inland from the lakes.”
Landau of the Hamburg Hawk Watch coordinates an annual bird count between March 15 and May 15 from Athol Springs. The highest number of bald eagles were counted last year – 122.
“This year, we only say 57 bald eagles,” Landau said. “The numbers ebb and flow.”
It’s not an exact science, and wind and weather patterns can play large roles in counting bald eagles from year to year, but Landau said the trends are showing definite signs bald eagle populations locally are rising.
“I still occasionally run into someone who says, ‘I really want to get away to Alaska so I can see a bald eagle,’” Landau said. “But, if you’ve got a day, I can show you a bald eagle here today more than likely.”
The resurgence of the bald eagle population is owed in big part to the ban of DDT in pesticides more than 40 years ago.
The chemical essentially obliterated the species from the state as recently as 1970. But a 13-year state nurturing program that brought in young eagles from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Alaska through the 1980s slowly re-established populations in the Hudson Valley, North Country and upstate New York.
Now, they’re coming back in greater numbers on their own.
“Over the last five years, it has certainly increased quite a bit,” Crocoll said.
Although still listed as a “threatened species” in New York, the number of bald eagles already exceeds the state DEC’s primary objective stated in its conservation plan for bald eagles it published in 2015: maintaining a statewide average of at least 200 breeding pairs of bald eagles.
DEC officials estimate the current bald eagle population statewide is now at 323 breeding pairs.
Bald eagles are territorial and can live for more than two decades, so although the numbers keep growing, there will eventually be a ceiling.
“At some point, it should level off,” Crocoll said. “But, it certainly hasn’t shown signs of it yet.”
State efforts spurred the bald eagle’s recovery. But not all of the bird’s interactions with humans have been good.
In recent years, at least three prosecutions have been made by state and federal agencies, including against:
• A Steuben County sheep farmer and two others last year for allegedly poisoning two bald eagles and a red-tailed hawk;
• A Niagara County farmer who inadvertently killed three juvenile bald eagles in 2014 by putting poisoned meat on his farm in an effort to kill coyotes;
• And a farmer in Allegany County who several years ago applied left-over pesticide to a corn field to “use up the product,” killing a pair of bald eagles and nearly three dozen geese.
The bald eagle was taken off the federal endangered or threatened species list on Aug. 9, 2007, but it remains protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.