Imagine it. It’s January, and you’re outside in a small, uninsulated wooden shed. The wind whips through the open windows, bringing the temperature down to about 15 degrees. Is this where you want to be?
If you’re an Eagle Watch volunteer for the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the answer is a resounding YES!
Each weekend in January and February, the Conservancy’s Eagle Watch volunteers—55 in all—bundle up in their warmest clothes, grab binoculars and scopes, and head to the Conservancy’s Eagle Observation Areas along the Upper Delaware River. They’ll spend the day looking for eagles and helping visitors to the Observation Areas do the same, teaching them about these magnificent birds, their habitat, and “eagle etiquette.”
The Delaware Highlands region is home to two distinct populations of bald eagles. Breeding eagles remain in the area year-round, building nests and raising young, while hundreds of wintering eagles migrate annually to the region from points north—some up to 900 miles away—in search of open water, food sources, and safe and protected habitat.
For some volunteers, spending their winter weekends this way has become a way of life. Mitch Opresnick and Paul Gamer each began volunteering nearly twenty years ago. “I never get tired of seeing the eagles—it is just grand,” Mitch explains. “But my favorite part is seeing the reactions of the people when they see them for the first time out in the wild. It’s great to be able to share that, especially with kids.” Paul especially likes when people come back year after year to visit him and observe eagles, but his favorite story is that of a grandfather and his grandchildren. Paul directed them to a local river access, and two hours later they returned and gave him a big hug because the kids were so excited that they had gotten to see an eagle fishing.
In addition to helping visitors see eagles in the wild, the Eagle Watch volunteers fill an important role—educating the public on “eagle etiquette.” Eagles are extremely sensitive to human presence. The volunteers help the visitors view them safely without disturbing them—disturbances force the eagles to use precious energy they need to survive in the winter months.
The cold weather doesn’t deter the volunteers, either. They see it as the perfect excuse to get out of the house during the winter—breathing the fresh air, enjoying nature, and meeting new people.
In winter 2019, the Conservancy’s Eagle Watch volunteers donated more than 750 hours of their time to welcome nearly 3,000 visitors to the Upper Delaware Visitor Center and Eagle Observation Areas and to guide four sold-out bus tours. With the eagle as ambassador for land conservation in the Delaware River watershed, the connection is clear that eagles and people share the same needs: clean air, clean water, and a safe place to live.
Photo credit: Stephen Davis