The Raptors Of Schodack Island

May 30, 2017

Looking at some killer birds and
learning about how they were saved from extinction

Way back in the last century when the old folks were young and useful, hawks and eagles were almost extinct in the State of New York and were rarely seen anywhere in the United States outside of Alaska.  The few people who noticed this disappearance and who were concerned, mostly naturalists and wildlife biologists, became aware that the dwindling nesting pairs of many raptor birds were simply not reproducing and replenishing their numbers.  The ecological damage caused by this approaching extinction at the top of the food chain was not well understood at the time, but it was becoming clear that birds such as the national symbol, the bald eagle, were unlikely to survive for much longer.

It was in the 1970s that a group of these naturalists and other concerned citizens took it upon themselves to figure out what was killing these raptors.  As is well known today, the culprit was found to be the pesticide DDT which concentrated in the bird’s bodies and made them sterile, once the poison was banned the birds became numerous again and we see them today even in populated urban areas.  But few people today know how the activism of these naturalists convinced the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to take up this cause and lead the nation in promoting the recovery of these birds.

Peregrine Falcon At The Raptor Festival At Schodack Island Peregrine Falcon At The Raptor Festival At Schodack Island

The Wife and I recently went down to Schodack Island State Park for the Raptor Festival put on by the Audubon society of the Capital Region.  As far as I can tell this is an annual event that is held in a different place in this region every May.  Back in 2011 we stumbled upon this event at the Nature Center at Thompson’s Lake up in the hills in western Albany County when we took our boats up there for the day, so we hoped we could attend the event in the future when we had more time to appreciate it.

We were also curious to see Schodack Island Park, which opened in 2003 and established some 50 overnight campsites just last year.  The park is a very long narrow island in the Hudson River just south of the City of Albany, running south from Selkirk and ending in a point well past New Baltimore in Greene County.  Only a small part of the island is accessible to us tourists, much is mostly undisturbed habitat, while the southern tip of the island is used by the Army Corp of Engineers for dredging the nearby channels, a constant operation every summer.

Watching For Bald Eagles Fishing The Hudson River At The Schodack Island Boat Launch Watching For Bald Eagles Fishing The Hudson River At The Schodack Island Boat Launch

The island is separated from the east bank of the Hudson by Schodack Creek, which up on the northern part where the park facilities are is a marshy creek that is only navigable by non-motorized boats during high tide.  Actually the island is technically not an island because the northern tip is connected to the mainland just south of Castleton, this is where the only access road is to the visitor’s area pavilions and campsites.  There used to be a series of islands like this in the northern part of the Hudson that are now attached to the mainland, it’s a wonder that the creek was never filled in and the island developed either for commercial or residential use.

According to a signboard Schodack Island was settled by Dutch farmers in the 1600s.  Before that the island was a meeting place for the Mohican people who lived on both sides of the river, the name Schodack is derived from the Mohican words “ischoda” or fire plain, and “akee” which means land.  There was a Mohican settlement on the southern tip of the island but remains of the site have been obliterated by the dredging operation.

A Hiking Crowd Hoping To Spot Some Wild Peregrine Falcons A Hiking Crowd Hoping To Spot Some Wild Peregrine Falcons

We arrived at the festival at 9:30 AM and joined about 70 people who took a walk with a gentleman who is an expert on bald eagles, and sure enough we spotted a few in the distance.  There are three nesting pairs of bald eagles around the island, they mate for life.  The birds build nests high in trees that they return to annually, the nests are quite heavy and sometimes as wide as six feet across.  

The bald eagles we saw were circling and diving for fish in the Hudson.  They are skimmers, they don’t dive through the water like falcons do.  With their incredible eyesight they circle high in the air, and when a fish moves near the surface they swoop down, grab it in their talons and bring the prey to the treetops to eat.

On the north end of the island are the big concrete pillars of the I-90 Thruway bridge that heads east across the river to Massachusetts, these pillars are a favorite nesting place for the peregrine falcons.  These birds dive through the air from incredible heights, sometimes reaching 200 MPH, and take out their prey by slamming into them.  If that doesn’t kill them the falcons then use their powerful beaks to snap their necks.  Sadly, we didn’t see any of them on the walk.

Barn Owl (On The Right) And Handler Barn Owl And Handler

The main attraction of the Raptor Festival was, of course, the raptor birds on display.  These were all rescue animals that had injuries that would not have allowed them to survive in the wild, so they spend their lives in captivity.  Their handlers at the festival were all private commercial concerns, one of them even announced that they were available for birthday parties.

Barred Owl Which Kept Hooing Uneasily At The Barn Owl Nearby, With Handler Barred Owl Which Kept Hooing Uneasily At The Barn Owl Nearby, With Handler

One might argue that keeping the birds alive in captivity and in effect putting on display performances for people is a cruel thing to do, but I’m not sure about that.  Giving these magnificent animals a further lease on life for the purpose of educating humans and satisfying their curiosity is useful for the survival of their species, teaching the humans to respect them and to support efforts to ensure that they continue to prosper.  And this helps humans to establish connections with both the birds and with the ecosystems that they inhabit.

Nature is not forgiving for the lame and halt.  Some folks do indeed argue that nature should take its course and kill the birds, but in a world dominated by humans who shape the landscape for their own needs there really isn’t much natural course left to speak of.   What nature we still have must be managed if it too is to survive and provide habitat for animals like these, and for us.

The Mangled Tail Feathers Of The Peregrine Falcon The Mangled Tail Feathers Of The Peregrine Falcon

For example, we saw a beautiful captive peregrine falcon, but when he was turned around we could see that his tail feathers were permanently mangled, he couldn’t fly.  We were told that an enormous red tailed hawk, the biggest I’ve ever seen, had “something wrong with his brain and could not fly.”  Sure enough when he became agitated he kept falling off his perch and had to be put into his enclosure.

It was the peregrine falcons in captivity that saved the species from extinction in North America.  These birds are used for hunting, enthusiasts are devoted to the birds.  Back in the 1960s when those enthusiasts heard that the falcons were disappearing in the wild they became quite concerned.  A good number of falcon owners willingly donated their birds to the project to develop a breeding stock to replenish their numbers in the wild.  This ensured genetic diversity of the peregrines which is crucial to long term survival.

The lessons learned with peregrine falcons led to an alliance of a group of concerned experts who, mostly with their own time and money, worked to bring back the bald eagles. Actually, these experts didn’t really know what they were doing, they had to innovate on the fly because nothing quite like this had ever been done before.  But after they got going on their project they received valuable support and assistance from the NY State DEC.

Darryl McGrath Of Albany, Author Of "Flight Paths" (SUNY Press 2016) Darryl McGrath Of Albany, Author Of “Flight Paths”
(SUNY Press 2016)

We learned about all this from an interesting talk given by Darryl McGrath, who lives not too far from us in downtown Albany.  Ms. McGrath is an award winning journalist who recently published a book about the incredible saving of the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle and other raptors from extinction called “Flight Paths, a field journal of hope, heartbreak and miracles with New York’s bird people” published by SUNY Press.  The book is a crucial record of how citizen activism is vital for preservation of our land and thus for our society at large, naturally we bought a copy of the book which I look forward to reading.

Central to the story is the almost unknown Dr. Thomas Cade of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, whom Ms. McGrath says is one of the most important conservationists of modern times.  Having demonstrated that it was possible to raise peregrine falcon eggs in captivity and introduce the chicks into nests after which the adults would raise the birds to full term, he and others showed that this technique worked on bald eagles.  More than anything else this active intervention brought the birds back from the edge of extinction inside of a few decades.

These actions relied not so much on accepted scientific procedure, publishing papers with peer review, conducting experiments and compiling data, etc. which is usually an exceedingly slow process.  There simply wasn’t enough time, if they had done that the birds would have completely disappeared while everyone was contemplating the best course of action.  Instead Dr. Cade and his allies relied on readily available poultry farming techniques which they refined as they went along by trial and error.

An Enormous Red Tailed Hawk An Enormous Red Tailed Hawk

With the falcons this involved rappelling up exposed cliff sides to find the nests.  The conservationists (which is what environmentalists were called back then) had to wear helmets as they climbed because of the danger of attack by the adult falcons who vigorously defended their eggs and their chicks.  The birds are small but powerful, in their preferred environment the humans hanging by ropes are at a distinct disadvantage in a battle.

With the bald eagles it was much easier for the humans to climb trees, the birds prefer tall pines because the trees provide shelter from storms but will settle for tall broadleaf trees. The enormous adults were less threatening to the climbers than the falcons, after four weeks the chicks can defend themselves adequately and besides, no other creature besides humans even thinks of messing with bald eagles.  The adults would actually stand to one side of the nest and and act agitated while the humans messed around with their eggs and chicks.

At one point there was only one pair of nesting bald eagles left in New York State located in a remote area near Syracuse called the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, but the female was found to be sterile.  After several attempts the birds accepted a hatchery chick into their nest and raised it to adulthood.  These chicks came from eggs brought from several northern states including Alaska, where there was still a fair sized and genetically diverse population, and where there were still many birds that had not yet been seriously poisoned by DDT.

American Kestrel, A Type Of Falcon American Kestrel, A Type Of Falcon

Most people believe that the federal government somehow or other intervened with local laws and practices to save the bald eagle and other raptor birds, but that was not the case and in fact it rarely is it ever.  Almost every instance of successful environmental defense in the United States begins with a citizen’s movement that is slowly taken up by local governments, and only eventually the federal government accepts the will of the people. In this particular situation naturalists and conservationists prevailed upon the New York State DEC to vigorously support their efforts. From the DEC website:

Remote video observation of New York’s only surviving bald eagle pair showed that the birds were carrying out all the functions of nesting, but their eggs broke before they could hatch. Since it appeared that this pair would be good parents, DEC bald eagle program personnel devised a plan to give them a chance.

Within two weeks of the birds settling into incubation, a biologist climbed to the nest, removed any egg present and inserted a plaster dummy egg. The adult birds incubated the artificial egg as their own for the next two to four weeks, while project personnel obtained a bald eagle chick from a captive breeding facility, brought it to New York and “transplanted” it into the nest. For three years, this pair accepted, cared for and fledged captive-bred chicks.

After the male of the original pair died, the female mated with a hacked [hand raised by humans] bird. They returned to the nest site and fostered five more chicks in subsequent years. Since then, hacked eagles have occupied the nest, continuing use of the territory for breeding.