Environment Column

In a backward step for conservation, Onondaga County could seriously threaten its lake’s bald eagle population

Last weekend 71 people — beginner and avid birders alike — took to the Onondaga Creekwalk with binoculars in hand, hoping to spot a New York rarity: the bald eagle. But if the county officials aren’t careful, future generations may never see one at all.

The previously endangered species and national symbol has been recently calling the city of Syracuse home. From December through March, the southern shore of Onondaga Lake becomes an eagle haven. Yet, just as people have grown accustomed to watching these birds increase in number each year, Onondaga County may be on the cusp of a decision that may make this winter the eagles’ last.

Since the 1840s, Onondaga County has been working to make its shorelines completely accessible to the public, a goal envisioned by the city’s first mayor, Harvey Baldwin. Unfortunately, this would include using Murphy’s Island, where the eagles primarily roost, or settle down to sleep.

Despite its name, Murphy’s Island isn’t an island at all. Instead, it’s a piece of land isolated by the CSX Transportation railroad tracks, the parking lot behind Destiny USA and the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant. Its isolation makes it virtually inaccessible to humans, which protects the eagles from being bothered.

Many people, including those in the Onondaga Audubon Society, speculate that Murphy’s Island is the missing piece the county needs to complete their Loop-the-Lake Trail. All that’s left is a disconnected southern trail — a gap Murphy’s Island may be able to fill.

But Onondaga Audubon Society President Alison Kocek thinks including Murphy’s Island is a bad idea because the construction of a potential trail would deter the eagles from returning.

“Onondaga Lake is an awesome restoration story. It used to be extremely polluted, and during that time eagles were not being seen on the lake,” said Kocek, who is also a doctorate candidate at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “Eagles almost went extinct, and at one point there were only two left in the state. Now that we have eagles returning to the lake … we want to preserve the area where eagles are being seen.”

And Syracuse residents may not be so gung-ho about the idea if it means losing the eagles. People are enamored by the eagles, Kocek said, and they’ve been transformed into a local phenomenon. Their presence is constantly mentioned in the local news, but Kocek said the general public lacks some crucial information about why the eagles are around.

For one, the main reason the eagles stay at Onondaga Lake is because the water where the treatment plant dumps out does not freeze, allowing them to fish all winter.

But constant contact with humans from a trail would disturb the eagles, which could mean starvation or putting them in a “less optimal” location where they wouldn’t be able to get the nutrition they need to migrate back north, Kocek said.

“They are a sensitive bird, and they are a very large bird,” she said. “That ups their sensitivity to us because they don’t have a lot of predators on themselves, so we’re one of the few that they’re going to be worried about.”

It’s exactly the reason why the Loop-the-Lake Trail must not be constructed on Murphy’s Island.

Yes, a lot of people use the trails – even Onondaga Audubon Society uses the trails for its bird watching field trips – but a lot of people also love the eagles. Onondaga County should seriously consider all the impacts a trail might have if it cuts through Murphy’s Island.

At one point a high of 39 eagles were counted in previous years, according to the Onondaga Audubon Society. It would be sad to witness their numbers dwindle to zero. And although the eagles only visit during frigid temperatures now, Kocek said there’s a possibility Murphy’s Island could host nests in the future, meaning they’d be here year-round.

Although the county hasn’t laid out a concrete plan yet, Kocek is preparing to fight back if she needs to. As of last month, Onondaga Audubon Society board members have been leading a group survey every weekend to observe eagle habits. The groups have been looking at population numbers, how many eagles are using the tall trees at Murphy’s Island and how they’re interacting with humans, if at all. With hard data, Kocek is hoping to show people the importance of looking for alternative locations.

Moving ahead, the county needs to take the Onondaga Audubon Society’s word seriously and refrain from putting the conservation success stories about the lake going strong at risk.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate magazine, newspaper and online journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.

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