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SPIRITS SOAR AS BALD EAGLES RETURN TO NAVY ISLAND

Bald eagles have landed on Navy Island, and they're living on the Niagara River island for the first time in more than 40 years.

And wouldn't you know it, two of them are in love.

Bird watchers in nearby Ontario and on Grand Island first spotted the eagles -- ranging in number from five to nine -- about a month ago.

A group of Canadian bird lovers working with the Ontario government built a nesting platform in an oak tree on Navy Island in 1998 in an effort to lure the eagles back to the island.

"We've had our fingers crossed ever since," said Bob Chambers, a member of the Niagara Eagle Support Team, or NEST, a Canadian nonprofit group. "It looks like this year our long wait has paid off."

The eagles include one adult male and one young adult female flying together in a courtship ritual, the bird watchers say.

The prospect that the two lovebirds might nest on the island, about a quarter-mile off the northwestern tip of Grand Island, excites local bird experts.

"The notion that eagles might return as a breeding bird to the Niagara River . . . to me, it represents a great turnaround in the environmental fortunes of the area," said Tom Burke, a bird watcher from Grand Island.

Environmentalists say it's a sign that the Niagara River is recovering from years of pollution.

Birders have spotted 15 eagles flying over Navy Island, Grand Island and the Niagara River this winter, an increase in number over recent years, said Anne Yagi, a management biologist with Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources.

"They're the top predator in the food chain, just like us," she said. The eagles' return is "always a reflection of how healthy the ecosystem is."

Eagles haven't nested on Navy Island since 1954, when a nest in a large cottonwood toppled in a windstorm, Chambers and Yagi said.

The eagle population in the Niagara River region and across Ontario slowly died off in later decades as DDT poisoned the fish that make up the bulk of the birds' diet.

The insecticide weakened the eagles' eggshells, making them so brittle that mothers would crush their own eggs, Chambers said.

"In the '60s, DDT took a very heavy toll, and it was a downward trend," he said.

The decline was dramatic.

"Fifty years ago, (eagles) were all along Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Every few miles, there would be a nest," said Debbie Badzinski, a bird population biologist for Bird Studies Canada, a nonprofit group. "By the early '80s, they almost disappeared from the Great Lakes."

The Canadian government banned the use of DDT in 1972, and the United States soon followed.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimated in 1997 that $500 million had been spent to clean up 16 hazardous-waste sites along the Niagara River, including the Love Canal.

In some cases, thousands of tons of sediment contaminated with PCBs and dioxins were removed from the riverfront.

Common terns, cormorants, great egrets, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons all have returned to the Niagara River. Deer again are swimming from Ontario to Navy Island, Yagi said.

Cormorants are another sign the river is clearer than it has been in years, Chambers said, because the diving birds fish only in waters where they can see their prey.

Environmentalists in 1995 lured eagles to a nest in Dunville, Ont., and they hoped to duplicate their success on Navy Island, Yagi said.

In 1998, NEST and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources worked together to build a nesting platform in an oak tree in the northwest corner of the island.

NEST volunteers raised $4,000 for the platform, Chambers said.

Eagles have been seen over the Niagara River in recent years.

Bird Studies Canada has tested eagle feathers found in nests along the river for contaminants, Badzinski said. They've found far lower levels of poisons in recent years, she said.

Eagles are drawn to the river in the winter because it doesn't freeze, and its fish remain a source of food.

But it wasn't until late January of this year that bird watchers spotted eagles on Navy Island.

Over the past several weeks, bird watchers on both sides of the river have reported seeing anywhere from four to nine eagles at any one time on or over Navy Island.

Burke and Bill Burch, another bird watcher on Grand Island, say they've seen five eagles on the island: an adult male, a young adult female, and three adolescent eagles that are 2 or 3 years old.

The eagles may not be used to this attention.

"I think they're probably from a wilder part of Canada, and they probably don't understand people," said Burch, a member of the Buffalo Ornithological Society.

On Grand Island, the best viewing is from the parking lot of the Niagara County water intake tunnel, at West River Parkway and Long Road at the edge of Buckhorn Island State Park. Navy Island is roughly three-eighths of a mile from Grand Island at that point.

The bird watchers hope the adult male and the young adult female will choose to nest on Navy Island.

Eagles tend to be loyal to their partner and to their nest, Chambers said, so if the couple chooses to nest on Navy Island, they likely will return year after year.

The breeding season begins soon, and the female eagle could lay her eggs within a month, Yagi said.

The male has been wooing the female by flying in front of her in intricate looping patterns, the watchers said.

"He's been following her around, chasing her, trying to land near her," Burke said.

Chambers was watching the Navy Island eagles last Sunday from Chippawa, Ont., when he spied the female eagle in the oak that holds the nesting platform.

"You have no idea the feeling that went through me," he said. "Unreal. It sent tingles up my spine."

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