October 29, 2011
Eagles' return a good sign
By Andrea Alexander
RIDGEFIELD PARK — The return of bald eagles to North Jersey, including a pair that have set up their nest on an industrial site in the village, is being celebrated as a sign of an improving environment.
But the return of a species that was once headed for extinction has complicated another rebirth of sorts — ongoing remediation at the former Lincoln Paper Co. property, which is on the state's list of known contaminated sites.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recently asked a contractor to stop work within 660 feet of the nest, after local environmentalists notified the state that the eagles' homestead was nearby. The property owner will have to meet with the state to determine what the permanent buffer should be to protect the eagles' habitat, said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
Environmentalists have been keeping a close eye on the raptors since realizing the existence of the nest last spring. They say it's important to protect the bald eagle because it's both a symbol of democracy and an important link in the food chain.
"This is the first time we've had eagles nesting in the lower part of the Hackensack River in my lifetime, and I am 60 years old," said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan.
Pollution and development had nearly wiped out the bald eagle in New Jersey, and Sheehan said their return to North Jersey is significant.
"To get them back is a sign that nature is reclaiming this post-industrial wasteland that we have here," Sheehan said.
"What is happening is this great food web that we all belong to is slowly but surely putting itself back together,'' he said. "They are making their way back to the area, and you can see the ecosystem prospering again."
100 nesting pairs
Widespread use of the pesticide DDT after World War II was blamed for nearly eradicating the American bald eagle. DDT made the eggshells fragile, which interfered with the eagle's ability to reproduce. The use of DDT was banned in 1972, but as recently as the early 1980s, the state had only one pair of nesting birds, according to the DEP.
But staff with the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Endangered and Nongame Species Program at DEP worked to reintroduce the eagle into the state. That included removing eggs for incubation and returning chicks to the nest. From 1983 to 1990, the state also brought in eagles from Canada through a program that increased the population, said Kathleen Clark, supervising biologist with the endangered and non-game species program.
Now there are about 100 pairs of nesting bald eagles in the state, and 2011 marked the first time more than 100 chicks hatched, Clark said. The eagles nesting in Ridgefield Park are the second pair to establish their homestead in Bergen County; another pair have established a nest near the Oradell Reservoir. In 2010, a pair of eagles were living in Woodcliff Lake, but have since left the area.
A pair of eagles had also established a nest and laid eggs in Wanaque and Rockaway in 2010, according to a state report.
"It is pretty great when Bergen County has a couple of eagles' nests," Clark said. "We didn't foresee that 20 years ago."
She said the fact that eagles established a nest in the village, and also produced two chicks this year, is a signal that the environment has improved. The American bald eagle was taken off the federal endangered species list in 2007, but the birds remain on the state's list.
"As beautiful as they are, [eagles] are also indicators of environmental quality and water quality," Clark said. "The fact that they are there means water quality has made significant improvements."
Local environmentalists have to been careful to protect the location of the nest. Gil Hawkins, executive director of the Overpeck Preserve, said he had recently received a call from someone who worked near the site and had noticed that trees were being cut down. Hawkins contacted Sheehan, who then alerted the state.
Clark said a contractor had been clearing trees at the site to build a temporary roadway. Records show that the property is owned by Pitcairn Skymark, based in Atlanta. A vice president with the company declined to answer questions this week about plans for the site. The village's construction official said the owner had approval to build office and commercial space years ago, but that the approvals have lapsed. He said there have been informal talks about other plans for the site, but the owner does not have any pending development applications.
Hajna said the contractor agreed to stop work near the nest after being notified that eagles were using the property. The ultimate size of a buffer from the nest will depend on the intended use of the property and other factors.
"Our ultimate goal is to make sure whatever happens, the eagles will continue to nest and use the area," Clark said.
Hajna said bald eagles have been very adaptable and have adjusted to industrial settings. A pair of eagles live along the Delaware River in Camden, although they don't always produce chicks, Clark said.
Hawkins said the fact that eagles have made their homes in an urban area is a testament to their resiliency.
"As long as democracy is the founding system of this country, the bald eagle will stand for that democracy," Hawkins said. "We need to protect it. If we lose the bald eagle, we lose the whole symbol of this country."
The American bald eagle
Size: 28 to 38 inches
Wingspan: 80 inches (almost 7 feet)
Weight: 10 to 14 pounds
Life span: Average of 15 to 20 years
* The bald eagle has been the national symbol of the United States since 1782. Eagles are not really bald, but their white-feathered heads contrast to their chocolate-brown bodies and wings.
* Bald eagles mate for life, but when one dies, the survivor will accept a new mate.
* Bald eagles establish their habitats near lakes, reservoirs, rivers, marshes and coasts.
* The Delaware Bay region has the largest concentration of eagles in the state.
Sources: Duke Farms, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
Known eagles nests in Northern New Jersey are in:
*Eagles had been living in Woodcliff Lake, but the nest is no longer active
Source: Department of Environmental Protection