TYRE — Birders taking part in the Midwinter National Bald Eagle Survey out of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge counted a record-breaking number Friday morning — 81.
Volunteers have been conducting the winter count across the nation since 1979. It's sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey and a number of citizen scientist volunteers.
Once on the endangered species' list due to habitat loss, poison by the chemical DDT, and other concerns, bald eagle numbers have since soared in the last four decades — especially locally.
For those who take part in the refuge's midwinter survey, there's a reverence for the place where New York State's Bald Eagle Recovery Program began. That feeling was more so Friday morning, as volunteers remembered and mourned the loss of Mike Allen, one of the first state Department of Environmental Conservation technicians to nurture eaglets transported from Alaska and northern Wisconsin in New York.
Allen and another DEC staff member, Peter Nye, were the leads on the project that started in 1976 when the state's bald eagle population dwindled down to two.
"The recovery program has just been a massive success," said David Marsh, coordinator of the local survey to Friday's volunteers. "We're indebted to those people for certain."
The midwinter survey conducted out of the refuge covers from the northern end of Cayuga Lake to the Lake Ontario shoreline. Jim Eckler, a wildlife biologist with the DEC, and Jill Pero, a sophomore at Keuka College and intern with the DEC, were assigned to scout the Sodus Bay area.
Eckler has worked for the DEC for 35 years, and Friday was his approximately 15th survey. Eckler, too, worked on the eagle recovery program when it was based out of Albany. He built one of the state's hacking towers at Alcove Reservoir, where scientists would take care of eaglets before they were ready to fledge.
For those who have seen the ruins of Montezuma's hacking tower on Clark's Ridge, it might be difficult to imagine that it once had a one-way mirror where scientists would sneak food into an enclosed cage unnoticed by the eaglets. Eckler said there was a camera inside the hacking towers, too, that he could move around using a joy stick from a control room to make sure the babies were eating.
After about 15 weeks of stealthily taking care of the birds, DEC staff would open the front door of the cage.
"Then you just see what happens," Eckler said. "Some of them would just stick there. Eventually they'd fly the coop. Then it was cross your fingers really because it's such a cruel world out there for young eaglets learning their way."
Sodus Bay was not the hot spot for bald eagles on Friday, but Eckler and Pero saw one juvenile off the beach of Sodus Point along with some long-tailed ducks, tundra swans, scoters and other fowl. They saw two more eagles, an adult and a juvenile, while driving back to the refuge.
It was the home site of where the first eagles were reintroduced, the refuge's wildlife drive, that saw some of the highest counts. Marsh said 28 were counted there alone.
Perhaps they were attracted to the many breaks in the ice making fishing a breeze during the January thaw. Or, perhaps they're the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those eaglets on which so much hope rested four decades ago, visiting home. Either way, they're thriving.