The St. Lawrence Bald Eagle Working Group, which I co-chaired for many years with my U.S. counterpart from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began an ambitious initiative on the Canadian side of the river in 2005.
We placed satellite transmitters on juvenile bald eagles. Prior to this in the mid 1990’s, our American colleagues had tracked overwintering adult bald eagles from the Wellesley Island vicinity in the 1000 Islands. The birds were captured with canon-fired nets which were set off over deer carcass baits on the frozen river. In spring (end of March/early April), telemetry data revealed those migrant eagles returned to nesting grounds in north central Ontario, Quebec, and Labrador. The swift open water areas of the upper St. Lawrence River had been as far south as the eagles had gone for winter.
Nesting bald eagles had been extirpated from the Thousand Islands in the 1930’s (last known nest was in 1937). In 1999 the science community became very excited when a nesting pair of eagles was discovered occupying an artificial nest platform that had been installed for ospreys a few years earlier on a small islet near Ivy Lea as part of the osprey recovery program. With nesting success both here and later in a natural nest on a nearby larger island by this same pair, the stage was set for research of our 1000 Islands eagles.
Bird Studies Canada (BSC), known for its Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie, had begun to use satellite telemetry technology on juvenile bald eagles in the Lake Erie area to track movements during the birds’ development to maturity during the first four years of life. (It takes four years for a bald eagle to reach adulthood and display the full white head and tail feathers). In 2004 I began a low key fund raising effort through a request in the Gananoque Reporter newspaper for donations to support the purchase of a transmitter. Through assistance from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), I then organized a partnership with BSC to conduct the telemetry study on the 1000 Islands juvenile bald eagles.
With generous donations received and a satellite transmitter purchased, several agencies (including OMNR, DEC, Parks Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service) and the island landowners worked cooperatively to install a “platform transmitting terminal” or PTT as it is known, on Regal in June 2005 in the nest near Ivy Lea. Regal a female juvenile approximately 9 ½ weeks old, was fully processed and received her battery powered satellite and VHF combination unit transmitter. Her processing included removal from the nest, measuring, weighing, banding, feather and blood sample collections for contaminant research, PTT attachment, and safe return to the nest. Of interesting note is blood samples collected from two juveniles at this Ivy Lea vicinity nest a year earlier showed that the 1000 Islands eaglets were the “cleanest” or least contaminated of all other eaglets checked in 2004 across southern Ontario by research scientists with the Canadian Wildlife Service. (This puts a whole new perspective on the feeling that we in the upper St. Lawrence River receive everything the Great Lakes send down to us).
BSC’s excellent tracking site on the web known as “Eagle Tracker” began illustrating Regal’s movements shortly after she fledged from the nest in August. Then suddenly in January, 2006, her last signal was given over St. Lawrence County in northern New York. Had the device suddenly failed, or had something happened to Regal? We most certainly will never know for sure. An attempt to locate her via the VHF transmitter was not successful. A check with BSC had revealed the juvenile bald eagle satellite tracking program had about a 50% success rate – and over the next four years we would place transmitters on 5 more juvenile eagles.
In 2006 successful fund raising meant that two PTTs could be purchased and in June, female siblings Spirit and Phyllis were outfitted with their satellite transmitters. As with Regal who had been named by her principal donor (a resident from Hill Island), Spirit was named by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario which had provided funds toward the purchase of one transmitter through its Natural Heritage Fund. Additional money was raised through a fund-raiser coordinated by the manager of the LCBO outlet store in Gananoque. Donations received that year from other sources paid for the transmitter for Phyllis. With her permission, I named Phyllis in honour of a lady who had recently lost her husband and son, both who I was informed had been great admirers of bald eagles.
BSC has described Spirit and Phyllis as superstars in this satellite telemetry program. For four years as they matured, their data points showed researchers where these juveniles, although not together, travelled extensively – from James Bay, to Labrador, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to the eastern townships of Quebec, to West Virginia, and just about everywhere in-between. Of note is the fact that Spirit returned to the same general area of Washington National Forest in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia each winter. However, as both birds approached four years of age their extensive travels ended, suggesting the choosing of mates and nesting. This year Spirit may have nested in the Big Rideau Lake area of Ontario and Phyllis in St. Lawrence County of New York. While Phyllis’s transmitter has discontinued giving a signal (expected after four years), Spirit’s transmitter for the time being, continues to provide location data. Although the data did not show that these two females returned to nest exactly in the 1000 Islands where they had been raised (which was one of the study’s questions), on an eagle scale, their locations are really only a few wing beats and a glide away.
In 2007, major funding was provided by an anonymous corporate sponsor and applied once again, along with other donations, toward the increasing purchase costs of a satellite transmitter from BSC. Mary, who I named after a grand lady resident of the 1000 Islands, unfortunately would only give one signal after she left the Ivy Lea area. Her fate in the thick forested area of central Quebec is unknown but her aboriginal stylized form now prevails on the top of a totem pole in the islands.
Also in 2007, a new discovery made me really believe that the bald eagle was on the road to recovery in the 1000 Islands. Two additional active bald eagle nests were found – one on an island in Chippewa Bay on the New York side, and one in the Admiralty Group of islands southwest of Gananoque. The New York nest was built precariously in a snag (standing dead tree) in an old great blue heron nest. Suspecting the now heavier refurbished nest would fall down the first winter, later that season DEC built an artificial nest platform in a nearby pine tree just in case. In the spring of 2008 it was discovered the snag had fallen over and the eagles had relocated to the new platform. The Admiralty Islands nest is a naturally constructed nest in a pine tree. In December 2008 a strong wind storm toppled the natural nest tree near Ivy Lea. The following spring, the Ivy Lea eagles returned to the nearby islet osprey platform (where they had begun in 1999) and raised 3 young in 2009 and 2010.
Following the death of well known Gananoque businessman Hal McCarney in 2008, his nephew Neil McCarney Jr. and myself decided to try to raise the funds for another transmitter and name it after Hal. Neil once again received support from the LCBO Natural Heritage Fund along with other notable organizations in Gananoque. I was forwarded donations from U.S. and Canadian individuals, and Save The River where I currently serve as Vice-President. (Note: The donors list for purchase of the transmitters is far too extensive to mention all of the individuals and organizations here, but has been displayed recently on my poster showings such as at the Thousand Islands Association summer general meeting, and during my PowerPoint presentations on bald eagles). Neil McCarney and I soon found we had enough funds to purchase two transmitters.
In June 2009, Hal from the Admiralty islands nest received his new solar powered styled PTT and Moose from the Ivy Lea area osprey platform received his (“Moose” being a well known nickname of Hal McCarney). This was the first time we fitted two males with satellite transmitters. Sex of these young birds is determined by weight at the time of processing. Male bald eagles are notably smaller and 1 – 2 pounds lighter than females.
Shortly after fledging from the nest, Moose travelled the eastern townships of Quebec to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and back to Pennsylvania but mysteriously disappeared over PA in November. Hal went on to spend the winter in the Annapolis region near Washington, DC, and returned to spend the summer and fall mainly here in the 1000 Islands. If Hal survives to adulthood and the PTT continues to function successfully over that four year period, we can watch for where he will choose to nest in 2013.
In reflecting on our failures and successes in this bald eagle telemetry program, BSC had predicted a success rate of 50%. That is exactly where our study came out. We placed transmitters on six birds; we’ve lost three (Regal, Mary, Moose), watched two superstars for four years+ (Spirit, Phyllis) and we are keeping a watchful eye on Hal. Young bald eagles face many dangers and challenges over the four years it takes to mature to an adult. Human made or caused dangers such as structures, swift moving trains, bio-accumulated contaminants in prey species, poaching, and natural dangers and challenges such as mortality from tail ice-loading, starvation, and fighting amongst individuals, combined with a four year period to recruitment are known to take their toll. We are pleased BSC has reported that the travel data of juvenile bald eagles had been very beneficial and expects to release a paper on the study. This information, combined with other initiatives, together increase our understanding of this magnificent bird and ways to assist in its recovery.
Other steps being taken locally are the identification and preservation of preferred habitat and enhancing nesting opportunities. The Leeds County Stewardship Council, for the past couple of years has been building artificial bald eagle nest platforms as a means of assisting the eagles with their recovery in the greater 1000 Islands area. Platforms have been built on Gananoque Lake (1) Charleston Lake (2), Red Horse Lake (1), Lower Beverley Lake (1), and in the St. Lawrence River (3). An additional platform is scheduled to be constructed this fall at Landon Bay.
To view these and other bald eagles being tracked by Bird Studies Canada, go to BSC’s website at www.bsc-eoc.org. Click on Destination Eagle and then Eagle Tracker.
If you think you have discovered a new location of a bald eagle nest in the 1000 Islands region please contact Bud Andress at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We caution though, except for the two new nests in 2007, the numerous other sightings reported to me to date have turned out to be nesting ospreys.
By Bud Andress, email@example.com
Bud Andress is the Canadian co-chairman of the St. Lawrence Bald Eagle Working Group, an international organization devoted to the recovery of the bald eagle in this region. The recently retired Parks Canada employee has conducted research and monitoring of various flora and fauna in the national park and the Thousand Islands region and has co-authored many published papers on ospreys, common terns, and bald eagles. He spent many years monitoring the Park's rare flora, including the Park's symbol – the pitch pine (Pinus rigida). In September 2008, TI Life team member, Kim Lunman wrote about Bud in Eagles in the Islands. Bud also wrote Where Have All the Shorelines Gone? for our e-zine in March, 2008.