HILL ISLAND - Bud Andress grabs his binoculars and hops on the Jet-Ski at the dock of his St. Lawrence River home to go in search of something that - until recently - hasn't been spotted here in decades.
He's heading towards an island near Ivy Lea with the SkyDeck towering in the distance and points to a tree top.
"Look," said Andress, slowing down to a stop and pointing to two eaglets resting on branches near a bald eagle nest perched over the Thousand Islands.
A bald eagle takes refuge in a pine to avoid more strafing attacks from an Osprey waiting patiently overhead for another opportunity. Despite its power and size, the eagle is defenseless even against the punishment inflicted by a tiny Purple Martin, pictured riding the eagle like a bronco buster.
The pair of eaglets are evidence of an international success story that has resulted in the slow but promising recovery of bald eagles in the area over the past nine years.
"It's amazing," said Andress. "They're showing they're fighting very hard on their road to recovery."
Photo Credit: Kim Lunman, © Recorder and Times
Eagle expert Bud Andress
Eagle expert Bud Andress keeps an eye out for a pair of eaglets at a nest near his Hill Island home. The retired Parks Canada warden has been monitoring the return of bald eagles to the Thousand Island region in recent years. The majestic birds disappeared from the St. Lawrence River for more than six decades but are making a comeback.
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 watched the program and its protege literally take flight.
It's the first time in over 70 years more than one pair of bald eagles have successfully nested on the St. Lawrence River. There are two eaglets at this small island near Ivy Lea and another two near Gananoque while a third nest near Chippewa Bay in New York on another island has also been reported.
The three nests with a total of six eaglets this summer are a positive sign for the bald eagle, still considered a rare bird in the Thousand Islands after it disappeared from these parts seven decades ago.
And scientists and conservationists on both sides of the border are optimistic the eagle population will soar over this part of North America again.
It is estimated 400 bald eagles nested from the Ottawa River to the Great Lakes in the early 1900s. But the eagle population dropped off in the 1970s as a result of pollution, habitat loss and human disturbance.
While considered an endangered species in southern Ontario, it has been downlisted to a species of special concern in northern Ontario.
Not a single pair stayed to nest in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River between 1937 and 1999.
The international St. Lawrence Bald Eagle Working Group, which is made up of government and non-government organizations in Ontario and New York, is working together to monitor the bald eagles' resurgence on the river.
The working group does not publicly identify the sites of the nests to protect the bald eagles and their offspring.
The first pair was spotted near Ivy Lea in 1999 on an osprey platform built to repopulate that species here in the early 1990s. The eagles have migrated to a nest on a tree top on a nearby island but the fledgling eaglets - now spreading their wings - and the grown bald eagles are still using the osprey platform.
"It shows they still have an affinity for the nesting spot," said Andress. "They are demonstrating that's their territory."
A total of 20 eaglets have been hatched at the Ivy Lea area site since that time, he said.
Two other nests were found in the Thousand Islands last summer.
Bald eagles often return where they were raised once they reach maturity, which is why conservationists are keeping a close eye on the St. Lawrence River fledglings.
Scientists are closely monitoring area fledglings after they leave the nest. Phyllis and Spirit are two Thousand Island eaglets banded and fitted with satellite transmitters in 2006 that have flown all over North America in the past two years.
The sisters - hatched at the Ivy Lea area nest - fly separately and sometimes as far as several hundred kilometers a day.
A team of scientists attached backpack-like satellite transmitters to the eaglets to monitor their movements. The transmitters are designed to fall off before the birds reach maturity at four or five years of age when they develop a full white head.
As long as their transmitters continue to function properly, the St. Lawrence eagles can be followed year-round through the Eagle Tracker on the Bird Studies Canada website at www.bsc-eoc.org. One or two eaglets from the St. Lawrence nest are expected to be fitted with transmitters this summer.
They have been tracked from Labrador to West Virginia as part of Bird Studies Canada's "Destination Eagle" project.
"They are the poster eaglets," said Andress.
"Spirit and Phyllis have been the two really successful examples of our satellite tracking system," said Jody Allair, a project biologist with Bird Studies Canada. "They really are superstars."
Blanche Town, a fish and wildlife technician for New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation in Potsdam, said the cross-border bald eagle working group is instrumental to the recovery of the birds in the region.
"It's great to work together," she said. "The birds don't know what the borders are."
There was only one bald eagle nest in New York State in 1976. Today there are 120 nests across the state, including the St. Lawrence River nest.
The birds are given names from contributors to the monitoring project. Phyllis was named after a woman supporter while Spirit was named by Gananoque's LCBO outlet, which sponsored the cost of monitoring the eaglet.
And citizens on both sides of the border are aiding in the research of the return of the bald eagles.
The Admirals of the Thousands Islands, a citizens' club with a strong interest in the celebration of the region in the U.S. and Canada have teamed up with the Leeds County Stewardship Council in Ontario and Save The River in New York to support ongoing recovery efforts in the region.
The late Hal McCarney, of Gananoque, and Dan Morrow, of New York, are in the process of determining just how best the Admirals organization can assist ongoing recovery efforts.
McCarney recently championed the construction of five artificial bald eagle nest platforms by students at Athens District High School.
The platforms have been turned over to the Leeds County Stewardship Council for installation in 2008 in collaboration with McCarney and the Admirals group.
McCarney's nephew, Neil McCarney Jr., has been fundraising at the LCBO outlet store he manages in Gananoque, which supported a satellite transmitter on Spirit.
Morrow, meanwhile, has spearheaded a subcommittee of the organization to fundraise for satellite tracking of young eagles from a nest on the New York side of the river in 2009.
Meanwhile, area birdwatchers have bundled up at the top of the SkyDeck in winter months to train their binoculars on the area in search of wintering bald eagles.
There are more wintering eagles, with about 75 to 100 eagles in the area between November and April, said Andress.
That's when the birds communally roost together in trees to survive the harsh climate. In addition to fish, they feed on the carcasses of deer that have already succumbed to the elements.
The increase in bald eagles on the Thousand Islands is an encouraging sign for the future of the majestic birds' return to the river, said Allair.
"Hopefully, we'll start to see more birds and this trend will continue," he said.
by Kim Lunman KimLunman@ThousandIslandsLife.com
Kim Lunman is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Reader's Digest, The Calgary Herald and other newspapers. She has returned to her hometown of Brockville, "City of the 1000 Islands," where she is a staff writer and photographer for the Recorder and Times. Kim recently included this article in a series on the Thousand Islands called “Island Treasures” published by Recorder and Times as a souvenir magazine in September 2008.