Millions of people visit Destiny USA every year from all over the world, but did you know that the United States’ living symbol of freedom and strength, loves to hang out here as well? During the winter, you can usually find Bald Eagles perched along Destiny USA’s Onondaga Lake shoreline. You’ll know they are there when you see birdwatchers and their large cameras parked at the edge of the parking lot, closest to the lake.
Now that we’re seeing more eagles and their fans on the property, we’re getting more questions about why they are here, where they come from and tips on when to view them. So, we reached out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Field Office and they gave some pretty good insight into these majestic and beautiful animals.
- Why do the eagles flock to this side of the lake (Destiny USA shoreline) in the winter?
Eagles don’t migrate in the true sense during the winter months like some other birds do, but they will travel as far as they need to in order to find food, which usually means near a water source. Feeding mostly on fish, and sometimes on mammals, carrion, or other birds, eagles can more easily find this prey also gathering near water in the wintertime. Food sources can be scarce at this time of year so eagles move to open water sources, like the south end of Onondaga Lake, to fish or find other animals. Onondaga Lake is designated as an IBA (Important Bird Area), where it provides habitat and food resources for many different birds in the otherwise urban area outside of Syracuse, NY.
- When are they typically seen here?
Typically, between December and mid-March eagles can be seen at wintering grounds, such as Onondaga Lake where food sources might be more readily available.
- Where do they come from and where are they the rest of the year?
The bald eagles at Onondaga Lake likely come from far and wide. Until bald eagles settle down and begin to breed, they wander for years, going wherever food is convenient. You can identify these young, wandering birds by their brown and mottled plumage – eagles don’t achieve their iconic crisp white heads and tails until their fifth year. The eagles at Onondaga Lake also likely include adult eagles that nest in New York or parts more northern during the rest of the year. Bald eagles usually exhibit site fidelity, meaning they return to the same area annually to nest. However, once they fledge their young for the year, breeding pairs will often drift away from their nesting territories and congregate with other eagles at feeding areas such as Onondaga Lake. In general, eagles can travel far distances and have been recorded to travel over a hundred miles in a singular day, but usually return to within 100 miles of the place they were raised to breed.
- What’s the highest number of eagles spotted there at one time?
According to Audubon New York over 50 bald eagles have been seen gathered at the south end of Onondaga Lake at one time. (Audubon, NY).
- What tips do you have for novice bird watchers to view them?
Scan the sky for soaring eagles, scan the top of the tree line to see if they are perched on bare branches, and look around the lake shoreline for any eagles sunning themselves or having a meal. For best viewing, stay in your vehicle, or stay quiet while watching so as not to flush the birds. Bring some binoculars, spotting scope, or a camera with you; even your phone camera will help you to zoom in to see the eagles without having to come near them. Spend some time watching the birds and observe their feeding, resting, and social behaviors!
- When is the best time of day to look for them?
Bald eagles are most active in the early morning (between 7-9 am) and the late afternoon (4-5 pm) but could be spotted at any time throughout the day from the Destiny USA parking area.
- How long should someone wait to see them?
Be patient! Like anything in nature, it depends on the conditions. Some days you might get lucky, and other days you may have to wait longer. If you are prepared to wait a while, bring a hot beverage, dress warmly and stay comfortably in your car. Tap into your inner-naturalist and practice patience.
- How far should I stay away?
The general rule of thumb for viewing any wildlife is to keep your distance. The suggested distance to keep from bald eagles is at least a quarter mile away, as per the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines. Never try to harass or get a reaction out of wildlife, avoid loud and disruptive behavior. Like other wildlife in the winter, bald eagles need to conserve their energy, so avoid unnecessary disturbance. If you flush an eagle from its resting spot, you are too close.
- Do you have anything else of interest on this topic to add?
In recent years, researchers have discovered a tremendous amount about the extensive travels of bald eagles by tracking individual eagles with satellite transmitters. The transmitters are put on eagles with safe, unrestrictive harnesses that eventually fall off the birds. The weight of equipment is light enough that it does not affect the eagles’ ability to survive and thrive. Through the information sent back by these transmitters, researchers have discovered patterns in where and when eagles travel. For example, in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia and Maryland, bald eagles were discovered to regularly travel between communal roost sites, with certain roosts acting as particularly popular ‘hubs.’ Similar roost hopping may also happen in New York; eagles may be moving between the region’s different lakes and rivers during the cold season. A commonly theorized reason for this roosting behavior is that it helps eagles learn from one another where food is located. In this sense, roost sites, interconnected by the eagles traveling between them, are eagle social networks! (Center for Conservation Biology)
Overnight: If you are an avid eagle lover and traveling through Syracuse/Central New York to follow the eagles, we invite you to stay at our Embassy Suites byHilton at Destiny USA. The 209 room hotel on property, has luxury comfort and convenient access to to your viewing location. Click here to book your stay!
Perks: Want to warm up while watching out for our feathered friends? Panera Bread at Destiny USA is offering a free cup of coffee, tea or soda to any eagle watcher who stops by and shows a new picture of an eagle on their camera.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Regional Office – Tom Wittig, Eagle Coordinator
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Field Office – Sandie Doran and Colleen Andrews
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Midwest Regional Office
- Audubon, New York
- Center for Conservation Biology
- New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Viewing Bald Eagles website
- Journey North