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Kristen Pechacek and her husband were driving Sunday along Interstate 690, on their way home from Rochester. They were nearing the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant when Pechacek noticed an enormous bird flying toward them from Onondaga Lake.
At first, she thought it was a heron. Then she saw the white head and the white tail.
“Oh, my God!” Pechacek screamed. “That’s a bald eagle!”
Pechacek, of Manlius, has always been fascinated by birds of prey. For years, she dreamed of seeing an eagle in the wild. The last place she expected it to happen was near the sewage plant in Syracuse. Yet as thrilled as Pechacek
was, she didn’t know the half of it.
For years, Onondaga Lake was written off as a poisoned mess. The southern shoreline, near a big pipe used to discharge treated water, was hardly where you’d expect to catch a glimpse of an elusive national symbol. But the outflow from the plant is dramatically cleaner, thanks to remedial efforts, and the warm water keeps the tip of the lake from icing over.
Bald eagles – as in lots of bald eagles – have taken notice. Roughly a dozen of the birds, maybe more, have settled in for the winter along the lake in Syracuse.
In many ways, it is electrifying news. To the Onondaga, who consider the lake a sacred place, it marks the return of a bird they revere. To environmental engineers like Charles Driscoll Jr., it is more proof of “a spectacular success story” in the recovery of the lake. To Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, who saw the eagles Tuesday with her family, the vista borders on the surreal.
And to such everyday Central New Yorkers as Pechacek, it provides an almost mind-boggling opportunity to glimpse a creature whose grace, size and power is usually associated with remote and wild places.
“You had to stop and think about where you were, and what you were seeing,” said Mahoney, after watching an eagle with a 6-foot wing span taking flight. “When we were children, these eagles were on the verge of extinction, something we might lose, and now we have them along our lake in Syracuse.”
Sunday morning, there were 11 eagles in plain view on the ice or in trees along the shore. Earlier this month, Bill Purcell, a member of the Onondaga Audubon Society, counted 12 in the same place. A year ago, Tom Carrolan – another bird enthusiast – snapped a photograph showing six of the 10 great birds he’d seen over the ice.
While the area is legally impossible to reach by foot, the eagles are visible each day from the window of the administration building for the treatment plant, where sanitary engineer Steve Bray loves to watch them as he drinks his coffee. They can sometimes be seen by motorists on I-690, or from the parking lot at Carousel Center.
Last week, Becka Turton, of Camillus had just arrived at the mall with her young children, Julia and Owen, when they saw an excited man pointing something out to a child: Two bald eagles were in a nearby tree.
“To me, it’s pretty amazing,” said Mike Allen, a state wildlife technician based near Rochester. For 33 years, he’s been intimately involved with re-establishing the eagle population in New York. From the beginning, he worked side by side with Peter Nye, considered the father of the state’s bald eagle program.
Allen estimates there are now many hundreds of bald eagles in the state. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to see. They usually avoid people. In warm weather, they live exclusively as pairs. Only in winter do adult eagles gather in groups, at places that offer open water and seclusion.
To Allen, that is what makes the Syracuse gathering so extraordinary: The eagles have found a rare buffer zone in a city. They often sit in trees protected from human intruders by a treacherous, snow-covered marsh. It is illegal to trespass on the nearby railroad tracks, where the freight trains and Amtrak cars that routinely thunder past are ignored by the eagles, swans, herons, ducks, hawks and occasional coyote drawn to the action around the open water.
There is no harm in observing the eagles from a distance, Allen said. But his one suggestion is that city and county officials do their best to make sure onlookers leave the birds in peace.
Every day, bald eagles routinely swoop down to grab fish from the lake in their talons. After they eat, they’ll sometimes soar in great circles around the city, which accounts for a recent explosion in bald eagle sightings.
The birds spend most of their time in their little hideaway near the treatment plant, the mall, the railroad tracks and I-690. There is no safe or easy way for the public to view the eagles around the water. The adult eagles, who arrived early in the winter, are expected to leave for their nesting areas within the next few weeks. Mahoney, who learned Monday about the presence of the birds, said her staff is already exploring ways of providing the best possible viewing, especially for when the eagles return next year.
“We’ll work on it,” she said. “It’s just such a metaphor for Onondaga Lake. It went from being embarrassing to something we’ve started to brag about. It’s almost like the first ones to hear about it were the bald eagles.”
The eagles are roughly 3 feet tall. Their wing span can stretch from 6 to 8 feet. The Syracuse group includes at least four or five adults with white heads and white tails, along with roughly eight “immatures,” or juvenile birds, whose striped brown plumage is reminiscent of gigantic baby robins. While one of the adults carries tags that were attached at some point by state biologists, Allen and other experts say it is impossible to know exactly where the birds nest in warm weather.
“They have a patchy food source in the winter,” said Laura Erickson, science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“If they find open water, they’ll just stop there and hang out.”
The eagles undoubtedly chose Onondaga Lake, she said, because the bitter cold has caused many lakes and ponds to ice over. For Oren Lyons, faithkeeper at the Onondaga Nation, the return of the great birds is both awe-inspiring and worrisome. “For us, there’s nothing better than to see an eagle,” he said. “It’s the best of all good luck to see one.”
The longhouse people of the Six Nations believe their Great Tree of Peace was planted on the shore of Onondaga Lake. That tree is always depicted with an eagle at its peak. The eagle serves as a sentry and messenger, Lyons said. It is revered within the Six Nations because it “flies the highest, and can take our messages to the Creator.”
It is also the job of the eagle to warn of danger, Lyons said, which is why he worries about Onondaga Lake. The eagles are drawn there by the fish, and Lyons is aware of all the trouble that Charles Driscoll Jr. reaffirms: Studies show fish from Onondaga Lake carry roughly three times the recommended federal safety limits for mercury.
Driscoll, a mercury expert at Syracuse University, said case studies indicate high concentrations of mercury can cause behavioral and reproductive problems in eagles. For the birds on the lake, the issue becomes feeding habits. Eagles will also eat carrion and water fowl, and Driscoll hopes the eagles in Syracuse are not dining exclusively on fish.
“It all depends on if they’re moving around and getting some food from other sources,” he said. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is already doing a study, scheduled for spring release, on mercury levels in songbirds along the lake. Eventually, Driscoll said, similar research should be done on birds of prey.
Even so, he sees the presence of the birds at the lake as another example “of a spectacular success story, just unbelievable.” The cleanup of Onondaga Lake, he said, “has come so far so fast that I don’t think the community fully understands what a miracle it is.”
It gets easier to grasp when you’re watching from the shore, and the Creator’s messenger appears from the bright sky to seize a fish.
Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard.