One of the first things you might want to know if you are going to look and listen for bald eagles is that they don’t “scream” — they don’t make that “keeeeeer” sound that bald eagles make in movies and television shows.
The call you hear in pop culture depictions of bald eagles is actually the call of a red tail hawk. Bald eagles make a much less distinctive sound, more like a chirp.
That’s just one fact Larissa Smith, wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey’s bald eagle project, will share when she visits the Tulpehaking Nature Center in Hamilton on Sunday, March 22. The center, which opened in October, 2014, is the main educational facility for the Abbott Marshlands.
The program, titled “Bald Eagles in Your Backyard,” will give anyone interested in the bald eagles that populate this area an introduction to the avian raptors. Even more interesting, though, will be the detailed look at a pair of bald eagles who have, for some six years, successfully nested near the Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath trail that borders the Abbott Marshland.
Since 2008 Kevin and Karin Buynie, Burlington Township residents, have volunteered to monitor the nest and its pair of eagles, known as the Crosswicks Creek pair. They will conduct the main portion of the program, sharing stories from their observations, hands-on artifacts, as well as the do’s and don’ts for observing bald eagles. Smith will be there to give background and answer questions.
In addition program attendees will get to meet a rescued bald eagle — unable to return to the wilderness due to an injury — which is now being used as an educational ambassador.
Later this spring, there will be an opportunity to actually view the Crosswicks Creek bald eagles, on Sunday, May 17, starting at noon. Researchers and volunteers will be on hand with spotting scopes and to answer questions about these majestic raptors, which have fought their way back from the brink of extinction.
By the 1970s New Jersey’s bald eagle population had plummeted to just one nest as a result of pesticides — primarily DDT — which caused their eggs to be overly fragile. Due to the efforts of the Endangered and Nongame Species Program (ENSP), Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, and dedicated volunteers, the state’s bald eagle population has steadily increased.
“The bald eagle project has been going on since the 1980s,” says Smith, speaking by phone from the CWF’s field office in Cape May County. “When I came on in 2000, there were 25 nests, and now it’s really increased, with more than 180 nests all over the state. And we hit the record number of more than 200 that fledged (flew for the first time) last year.”
“I basically take care of the southern part of New Jersey and another biologist covers North Jersey, and we’re finding out about new nests all the time,” she adds. “Just the two of us can’t possibly watch them all and that’s why volunteers like Kevin and Karin are so valuable to us. We have about 75 people volunteering to watch the eagle nests. They’re very knowledgeable and so dedicated.”
“It’s always been a passion of mine to see and study bald eagles,” Kevin Buynie says. “About six years ago I saw the Conserve Wildlife Foundation’s website and volunteering for the bald eagle project. That’s how we got started.”
“The Crosswicks Creek nest was the first we were assigned to in 2008, and it was a new nest, discovered even before the towpath was restored and in place,” he adds. “Although we started monitoring the nest in 2008, the pair didn’t start laying eggs until 2009.”
If you’ve walked or biked on the towpath, heading north from Bordentown, the bald eagle nest is about two miles from of the trail’s beginning, and about a mile from the I-295 Scenic Overlook. It seems like there is nothing but marsh and creek to look out at and then, all of a sudden, there is a stand of tall, straight pine trees.
Even with the naked eye, you can’t help but see a huge nest high atop one of the trees closest to the marsh. Bring a pair of binoculars and you can clearly see the nest and — if you’re lucky — one or more of its inhabitants.
On a typical Saturday, in all kinds of weather, Kevin and/or Karin will be out on the towpath, with a sighting scope, happy to let passersby have a look at the eagles, as well as hand out pamphlets and other information.
Kevin reports that the Crosswicks Creek pair seems to be sitting on eggs again, as of the end of February.
“They were thrown off this year, as their old nest fell down,” he says. “They’re in a new nest, in the same group of trees, just a few trees over from their former spot. And yes, you can see the nest from the towpath.”
“They have a really good area, considering the proximity of the marsh, Crosswicks Creek, and the Delaware River,” Kevin says. “They really like it there, and they’re very successful hunters, good parents, and good providers. I’ve seen them come back to the nest with big fish and waterfowl. This pair is one of three that was born and raised in New Jersey, and you can tell this by their banding. They both have green bands, and that means they’re Jersey-born eagles.”
“I guess they like our state,” Karin says.
The Buynies also watch the Princeton bald eagles in their spot near Carnegie Lake, as well as a nesting pair near the Burlington County Fairgrounds on Route 206 in Columbus. That particular pair nests a little farther inland, so they don’t fish as often as the Crosswicks eagles. However, they have found plenty of food in their surroundings. When taking a closer look at the Fairgrounds nest, Kevin Buynie was surprised to see the remains of some cumbersome creatures the eagles had hunted — groundhogs. “We saw several groundhog carcasses in fact,” he says.
This might lead some to worry that a bald eagle near your property would mean keeping your cat or small dog inside for fear of being hauled off.
Karin Buynie laughs when she recalls meeting one woman who was worried about letting her little dog out — not to mention her children — in the vicinity of bald eagles.
Smith, the wildlife biologist, says she gets asked that question frequently — will the bald eagles carry my pets away?
“I say, ‘never say never,’ but the chances are slim that they’ll go pick up a yapping little dog, or a nervous cat,” she says. “They pick up whatever is easiest. Overall, they’ll go for the fish first, but they also like road kill.”
Picking up and bringing a groundhog back to the nest is a real testament to the bald eagle’s lifting abilities, considering the birds weigh only 8 to 14 pounds. They look like they weigh much more but, Kevin explains, the eagles are built to fly, and their bulky appearance is thanks to their feathers — some 7,000 of them.
The Buynies were rewarded for their patient observation of the Crosswicks Creek eagles last year with a special surprise — the pair produced three young ones, who all lived to fledge and leave the nest.
“We’ve never seen three in a nest before,” Kevin says. “Three is not out of the ordinary, but it was a happy occasion for us. Three young ones could prove to be difficult because, when bald eagles lay their eggs they don’t lay on the same day; it could be spaced out for a few days and they hatch in that order. By the time the third one hatches, it could be a week and there’s a question whether the parents might not bring back enough food.”
“Bald eagles are also the fastest growing raptors,” he adds. “They go from hatching to fledging in about 12 weeks.”
In New Jersey bald eagles lay their eggs anytime from late January to mid-March, and the eggs incubate for about 35 days. Upon hatching the chicks are helpless and require close parental care. After about six weeks the young birds begin to stand up and feed themselves when the adults deliver food. Even after the young ones’ first flights, adults will continue to provide food for them near the nest, while the young perfect their flying and learn how to hunt.
Much like human adolescents, the young birds can be awkward, Smith says.
“The mortality rate the first year is high because they’re learning how to hunt and fish and, of course, how to fly — just in general how to live on their own,” she says.
In addition bald eagles don’t display their distinctive white head feathers until they are about five years old. So you may be looking at a large bird with dark feathers and thinking it’s a vulture or something else, when it’s actually a bald eagle.
Kevin and Karin Buynie grew up in north and north central Jersey, and came to this area after falling in love with a house and a then-new development in Burlington Township. Kevin’s father worked as a quality control manager for a plastics manufacturer in Passaic, and his mother was a homemaker. Four years of service in the Navy — and nine as a reservist — gave Kevin great exposure to the outdoors, and he says that he has always been interested in and an advocate for bald eagles.
Since the late 1980s he has worked as a parts manager for Taylor Products Inc., located in Edison, ice cream machine distributors for such companies as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and whatnot, throughout the tri-state area.
Karin’s father and mother owned a florist and garden center near Edison. She says working there, along with family vacations at the beach and various national parks, sparked her love for nature. Karin graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with an associate’s degree in textile development and merchandising. For about 10 years she has been accounts payable manager for Rancocas-based Stylex Seating, makers of commercial seating, such as office/desk chairs.
About volunteering to become nest observers, Karin says, “We wanted to do something different, and then we just got really wrapped up in it. I figured, ‘how many people get to monitor a bald eagle nest?’ I really enjoy seeing them, and it never gets old.”
“I want to be sure and thank the bald eagle (observing) volunteers, because they’ve made so much of a difference,” Smith adds. “They do it because they love it. They’re out there and they see stuff that’s amazing — things I’ve never seen.”
Bald Eagles in Your Backyard, with volunteers Kevin and Karin Buynie and Conserve Wildlife Foundation N.J. wildlife biologist Larissa Smith, Tulpehaking Nature Center, 157 Westcott Avenue, Hamilton, Sunday, March 22, 2 to 4 p.m. Suggested donation, $5 per person. Proceeds benefit the Wildlife Center Friends and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
Eagle Nest Viewing, from the D&R Canal tow-path adjacent to the Abbott Marsh, Sunday, May 17, noon to 3 p.m. Free. Park at the I-295 Scenic Overlook north of Bordentown, and walk approximately one mile to the site. Sponsored by Mercer County Park Commission, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, D&R Canal State Park. 609-303-0704 or www.marsh-friends.org.
For information on the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, go to www.conservewildlifenj.org