Eagles returned to the wilds of Manhattan

Young birds moved from Wis. to forest on island's northern tip

July 07, 2002|By Robert F. Worth | Robert F. Worth,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The mysterious sign in Inwood Park warned visitors away.

"Area Closed," it read, conspicuously guarding a fenced-off portion of the thickly wooded park in northern Manhattan. "Endangered species. Property under 24-hour surveillance."

There was a cluster of Parks and Recreation Department trucks along the perimeter, and a stone-faced officer stood guard, keeping any wayward joggers clear.

The parks workers were protecting a delicate operation to return a long-vanished resident to Manhattan's only remaining swath of virgin forest. Bird experts hired by the department were transplanting four young bald eagles to a treehouse, in the hopes of persuading the national symbol to adopt Manhattan as its home for the first time since the 19th century.

A secret affair

But it was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Fearing an onslaught of unruly bird watchers, who might disturb or even trample the delicate eaglets that they had come to observe, city officials imported the young raptors from the wilds of northern Wisconsin in strict secrecy.

When a reporter inquired about the birds, city officials implored him not to write about them, saying they feared that too much publicity could be dangerous. "Our intent was not to make a big splash until we could really get them in place," Alexander Brash, the chief of the Urban Park Service, said.

Even the birds were in the dark about their whereabouts: as soon as they were removed from the boxes used to transport them to the big city, hoods were placed over their eyes, to keep them calm.

But the New York region's bird watchers were agog over the eaglets' arrival.

"Eagles? In Inwood Park?" said Sarah Elliot, an urban birder for more than 40 years. "I haven't even heard a murmur about it."

Elliot was putting the finishing touches on the latest edition of The Elliot Newsletter: Nature Notes in Central Park, the bi-monthly publication she has published for eight years for fellow birders, when she heard about the eagles recently.

From crowded nests

The birds began their journey recently, when Wisconsin biologists climbed tall evergreens and removed them from their nests. They were taken only from overcrowded nests where they would not have survived, said Patricia Manthey, an ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

After a meal of fresh fish, they were placed in green kennel boxes and flown to Newark International Airport, where Thomas Cullen, an expert falconer, picked them up and brought them to a wooded spot in the northern part of Inwood Park, a 200-acre swath of forests and playing fields at the tip of northern Manhattan.

Then a group of Urban Park Service employees toted them down a narrow trail to a 20-foot wooden platform topped by two green boxes: the eagles' new home.

As car alarms blared faintly in the distance, the eagles, in their kennel boxes, were hoisted up on ropes and placed gingerly in their cages, which are outfitted with a comfortable bed of sticks.

Once safely inside the cages, the eagles were released, and biologists attached identifying bands to their legs.

They looked - well, surprised. Spreading their mottled brown wings and pecking at the biologists around them, the birds glanced out at a spectacular view of the Harlem River and the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Surveillance camers

However secret their arrival, the birds will soon be as visible as any Midtown tourist. Their new perch is outfitted with a camera on a post that films their every move, 24 hours a day. That video - and a good direct view of the eagles - will be available from the Inwood Park Nature Center, on the shore of the Harlem River.

The birds are clumsy at first, and in their early efforts to fly they sometimes fall to the ground and die, Cullen said. But in many ways they will live like many of their fellow New Yorkers: waddling around the nest, eating takeout - 16 pounds of fish a day, courtesy of the parks department.

By late summer, when they have tested their flying skills, those that have survived may well choose to fly off to wilder climes.

But if all goes well, they will be joined each summer for the next four years by another set brought from outside New York, in the hopes that some will nest here, Brash said.

Washington program

A similar program begun in 1995 has succeeded in bringing eagles back to Washington, said Bob Nixon, the executive director of the Earth Conservation Corps, who helped introduce the Manhattan eagles. That program, operated by the federal government and a group of inner-city school children, has allowed eagles to begin nesting on the Anacostia Island Nature Preserve, just a few miles from the White House.

In fact, parks department officials have hoped to follow the Washington example for several years. But it was not until after Sept. 11, when reintroducing the eagles took on patriotic undertones, that the idea came to fruition.

"We're thrilled about it, and very grateful," said Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner. "But we were hoping to get it established without too much publicity."

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