Rondout, Mongaup Falls, and Rio Reservoirs,
Sullivan County, New York

I saw my first Bald Eagle at Rondout Reservoir on December 21, 1985 after learning about the Sullivan County reservoirs in Where to Find Birds in New York State by Susan Roney Drennan. In recent years, I have tried to visit three reservoirs in Sullivan County around Christmas time or on New Year's Day. Eagle finding is best when the weather has been cold and the reservoirs partially freeze over. Then the eagles congregate at the open spaces where they can fish. I have had my best luck at Rondout Reservoir, with good success also at Rio.

In fact, my best eagle watching experience occurred at Rio. A pair of Bald Eagles was sitting in a tree with an immature eagle nearby. The immature approached the adults and appeared to be begging for food. The adults ignored it for a short period of time before they chased it to a nearby tree. In a little while, the immature eagle flew back to the same tree as the adults and landed on a lower branch. It kept on looking up at them. After about five minutes, one of the adults could take it no longer and chased the immature all the way up the river. It was fascinating behavior to observe.

December 25th, 1996 - I did not have much hope for success on this day as the weather had been warm and the reservoirs were not frozen over. The conditions were similar to last New Year's Day when I failed to find an eagle at any of the reservoirs. When I arrived at Rondout Reservoir, the only bird I saw was one American Crow. None of the gulls or ducks that I always find there were apparent. After about ten minutes, I did observe a few gulls and then several flocks of mallards flew in.

Mongaup Falls Reservoir # 1I decided not to stay at Rondout and drove on to Mongaup Falls Reservoir. I had never seen an eagle at that location and, in fact, had hardly seen anything of interest there. There were a good number of American Black Ducks and a few Mallards there today. I saw a small bird in the water and as I was moving my car to get a better look, a very large, dark bird flew overhead - an immature Bald Eagle. It made several sweeps over the water and then landed in a tree. I left my car and went into the blind. (This is a state-designated eagle watching site. You are supposed to stay in your car or the blind so that you do not disturb the eagles.) After a while, it again circled the waters and approached quite close. It flew off and then returned for a third go round a little later. I waited awhile longer and when it did not return, I looked for the little bird in the water which turned out to be a pied-billed grebe. I then drove on to Rio Reservoir, but it was quiet there.

The day was a pleasant surprise since I had not expected to see any eagles, much less find one at Mongaup Falls.

Mongaup Falls Reservoir
Mongaup Falls Reservoir #2
Immature Bald Eagle The Same Eagle

December 25, 1999 Another day that started out without much hope. Again, the weather had been warm. Again, there was no ice on Rondout Reservoir. I parked my car in the first area and hardly saw anything. Not a gull in sight. A few Common Mergansers. I decided that I would give the area a half hour before moving on to one of the other reservoirs. I drove to the second parking area in time to see a mature Bald Eagle flying away from it. Went back to the first area to see if I could locate it again. When I couldn't, I drove back to the second parking area. There I saw one immature Bald Eagle on the ground and another in a tree. Three eagles on a day that I didn't expect to see anything not too bad. I was able to study these quite well through my scope. Both had some white in around the neck. This was especially noticeable when the wind ruffled their feathers. The one on the ground took off and flew toward the first area. I drove back there and couldn't find it so I returned to the "good" area. Now there was an adult on the ground. I could tell that it was a different adult than the one I had seen before because the white areas on this one were pure; the first bird had some mottling on its white parts. I was able to observe it closely while on the ground and after it flew into a tree. Now I was up to four eagles at one place. This tied my record for eagles at one reservoir in a day. But I was not finished. Another immature flew overhead, followed by another adult. Then the perched adult took off and I watched three eagles circling in the sky at once.

I finally drove on to Mongaup which was quiet. Just some American Crows and Hooded Mergansers which landed as I was leaving. It was also quiet at Rio Reservoir. The water there was covered with a thin layer of ice. After literally seeing no birds there, I drove along the road in hopes of finding some songbirds. No luck either. On the way back, I saw people in a parked car with raised binoculars. I asked if they had anything and they said there was an immature in the trees. I was able to find it, but by the time I got my car turned around to get a better look, the bird had flown. Still it was my seventh eagle of the day.

December 25, 2000 - As I have noted in the past, when the weather is cold and areas of the reservoir freeze the eagles congregate at the open areas. It had been rather cold in the New York City area this past week and I was hoping that it was even colder upstate. When I left my house this morning at 8:15, the temperature was 20F. The weather forecast also indicated that there would be high winds and said that the current wind chill factor was +1F. There were faint traces of snow on the ground that remained from earlier in the week.

I drove through Queens and made a brief stop at the Bayside Marina. I scanned the water, it was rather choppy, and saw a raft of thousands of scaup. I took them to be Greater Scaup. Also saw a small group of about a dozen Ruddy Ducks. I continued on and as I drove over the Throggs Neck Bridge (it originally had two g's and I prefer it that way), the high winds really took hold of my car. Made a nostalgic stop in the Bronx to look at a few of the buildings that I lived in when I was a little tyke including the one where I fed the pigeons and sparrows on my fire escape (much to the consternation of the family that had a walk in apartment right below). Then on to Westchester County. Not much happening there one flock of Canada Geese flying overhead. As I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge, I noticed that a lot of the water near the shore was frozen. I took that as a good sign for the conditions further upstate. Small amounts of snow on the side of the road, evergreens, and deciduous trees most of them were bare but oak leaves clung to some of them made for pleasant scenery. As in recent Christmases, there was not much traffic on the road. I did not see any cars with presents in the back seats. That is a big change from the trips I made in the early years.

After I got off the Thruway I drove on local roads for a while. I saw a Red-tailed Hawk flying overhead and pulled off the road and watched it circle for a while. Also saw some small birds while driving but was not able to identify them. As is another of my customs, I drove up to Minnewaska Park and Preserve. I have never seen anything here and today was no different. I do, however, like the sun and the evergreens and the birch and I continue to have hopes.

Finally got to Rondout Reservoir. As I drove along, I noticed that there was no ice on the water and that it was so windy that there were white caps. Didn't look too promising. Saw an occasional Ring-billed Gull flying over the water. I rounded the far end of the reservoir and noticed a lone female Common Merganser. The temperature was down to 13F when I parked my car. There was a little snow on the ground and a small amount of ice in the reservoir. This end of the reservoir must have been a little more sheltered as the water was calmer here. Found some more ducks on the water male and female Common Mergansers and Mallards as well as American Black Ducks. Very few ducks. Saw a few American Crows flying overhead. Tried (but not very hard) to turn them into eagles. The number of birds as well as species was quite disappointing.

There was a partial eclipse of the sun today and I had heard that a good way to observe it was to use your binoculars to focus the image on something else. If there weren't going to be birds, at least I now had a good use for the binoculars. In the projected image, I could see that a small chunk of the sun was missing. I then turned my attention back to the crows. They were bathing in the frigid water. Then I saw another bird flying overhead; much larger wingspan than the crows. I knew it was a Bald Eagle, but based on the white on its belly, my Sibley enabled me to pin it down as a second year bird. I watched it land in an evergreen. I drove to another location at the reservoir where I had a better view of the tree, but was unable to locate the bird again. Watched the eclipse some more and then saw two more Bald Eagles flying side by side. These did not have the white on the belly and were first year birds. The two flew together for quite some time wheeling and circling in the sky. Occasionally one would flip over and present its talons to the other. I had never seen this in person before and although they did not actually grab each others talons, it was still quite thrilling. I watched them in my scope and binoculars for about fifteen minutes or more. (My fingers got kind of cold as I failed to remember to put my gloves on as I stood outside. The radio said the wind chill factor was fifteen to twenty below zero in this area.) I must have spent an hour and a quarter there before I decided to move on.

The next stop, as usual, was Mongaup Reservoir. Didn't see any bird activity on the drive there or at the reservoir itself. There was ice on the surface of the water near the shore. Spent some more time watching the projected image of the eclipse. Even though it was bright out, there was some snow flurry activity. Spent about ten minutes without seeing a bird. Finally heard an American Crow and then saw one fly over, then another, and another, and another. If felt as though the temperature had dropped and as I looked up, saw that the sun was behind some clouds and got a glimpse of the sun through the haze nice view of the sun with about 25% missing. Then I saw one American Black Duck on the water. A flock of seven Black Duck then flew in. I was just about to leave when I saw an adult Bald Eagle flying towards me. A tree blocked my view and I couldn't see where it went. I moved my car, but could not relocate the bird. Waited around some more and then left.

Took a drive up a dirt road up a mountain because I wanted to see if I could find any small birds and also wanted to drive on some snow. Did not find one bird on the way up, but on the way down had a grey Ruffed Grouse standing in the road. As I lowered the car window to try to get a shot (photo type) of it, it flew off. Went back to the reservoir area and saw a car pulling out of the eagle watch area. It drove a little and then stopped on the side of the road. The driver and passenger were scanning the reservoir. I stopped behind them but didn't see anything. I pulled up next to the car and asked if they had seen anything. I was expecting no for an answer (and was going to tell them about the eagle I had seen earlier). I was quite surprised to hear him say that he had seen SIX up river. I asked how one got up river and he said that he just parked on the bridge (that says no parking) and you could see them. Gosh, in all my trips there, I had never attempted to look up river. I turned the car around and parked off the road a little but couldn't see much from it so I parked in a different area and got out of the car and walked onto the bridge. I had my gloves with me, but my face was freezing! It was worth it. Saw part of a mature Bald Eagle in a tree that was fairly close. I thought that I saw an immature further away. That was confirmed when a second immature flew to the same branch and displaced the first. Then I saw two more immatures flying side by side. They did some of the same maneuvers that the ones at Rondout at done earlier. It was too cold to stay for too long, so having seen five eagles at that site (couldn't count the first adult as a separate bird) I moved on to Rio Reservoir.

I enjoyed driving by the partially frozen streams and watching the water rushing along. Scanned the trees in all the right places and could not find an eagle. The only birds that I could find were some Mourning Doves. Turned around, headed back and saw a doe which scampered off into the woods.

I decided to give Mongaup one more try. This time I stayed in my car. I located the mature Bald Eagle. When it moved, I could see parts of its tail, head, and bill. Then another mature Bald Eagle flew further down the river. That gave me the six at Mongaup; together with the three at Rondout I now had a nine Bald Eagle day. Very satisfying so I started my drive home (and I picked up another Red-tailed Hawk on the way).

Bald Eagle at George's Island Park, Montrose New York   Bald Eagle at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

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Copyright 1996-2011 Richard L. Becker