The Improbable Conservation Story of a Polluted Lake, an Endangered Species, and Some Devoted Birders

Onondaga Lake, once known as one of the most polluted lakes in the country, now boasts the largest urban roost for wintering bald eagles in New York State. On some days more than 100 eagles can be seen roosting, catching fish, perching along the branches, or soaring over the water, and they attract a legion of dedicated watchers, followers, photographers.


Photo by Don Florczyk.

I arrived at the lookout first that morning. But a silver Subaru Forester arrived shortly after and parked by the cluster of spindly, branching trees that mark the wastewater treatment plant on Onondaga Lake. Cars dotted the Destiny USA parking lot and shoppers toting bags from Best Buy or Panera walked across the expanse of asphalt. The Forester and I sat as far away from the mall entrance as possible, facing the lake view over the train tracks. Slowly, another car pulled up. Inside, a masked couple cradled long-lens cameras.

“Have you seen one yet?” the new driver asked us excitedly from his car window as the morning sun beamed off his glasses.

“Not yet,” the Forester driver followed up. Soon, another car followed with the same question, then another, then another. Gulls called loudly in the background. Then I watched as a hawk flitted low across the train tracks.

Though the now-cluster of cars came together by chance, we all arrived in search of the same unique sight: bald eagles fishing, roosting, and caring for their young on the southern shore of Onondaga Lake. Bordered by the backside of the Destiny USA mall parking lot, dozens upon dozens of eagles gather here each winter, creating a wild spectacle that draws visitors from around the state, building a robust community of Onondaga County birdwatchers. Dedicated to both conserving the eagles’ habitat and sharing their beauty, the birdwatchers have gathered in groups of 1,000 strong to support conservation and 100 strong to protest legislation that may harm the eagles’ burgeoning habitat. Though Covid-19 has made group gatherings scarce and high-risk, eagle lovers — amateur and avid alike — have found a sense of community through chance encounters on Onondaga Lake. Bald Eagles of Onondaga Lake, a Facebook group of more than 5,000 dedicated to Syracuse’s eagles, plays a key role in the community and its activities.

It’s unmistakable — the flecked white tail and golden crested head, the size of which suggests the regality of the animal.

Alison Kocek, president of the Onondaga Audubon Society and the group’s administrator, says she first created the Facebook group as a means to spread awareness about conservation efforts and best practices. The group works to protect the birds’ safety by expressly prohibiting sharing exact locations of rare birds and sharing information on proper distances to keep from animals.

Studying at SUNY ESF years ago sparked Kocek’s own environmentalist passions, leading her to join the local Audubon. “I realized I wanted to do more than just study birds,” she says. “I wanted to actively help with their conservation.”

The conservation effort that sparked the group in 2017 centered around challenging the county on a proposed public walking trail. The trail would bisect Murphy’s Island, a thin strip of land on Onondaga Lake behind the railroad tracks where thick, old-growth cottonwoods provide the eagles with a preferred roost. The trees overlook the county’s wastewater treatment plant, and the warm outflow from the plant stops the water from freezing through winter, creating a perfect place for the birds to fish and driving much of their winter migration.


A darker-colored eagle shows off its wingspan. Photo by Don Florczyk. A bald eagle shows off it’s profile from a perch by Destiny USA Mall. Photo by Ed Guarente.

Historically, Murphy’s Island has been closed to the public. Covered in undergrowth, the land was left wild at the edge of an intersecting highway and the shopping behemoth Destiny. The expansion, part of a proposed “Loop the Lake” trail, would allow pedestrians to walk underneath the eagles, a move Kocek and members of the Onondaga Audubon fear would destroy their habitat. Further, the proposition infringes upon agreements with Onondaga Nation council members who rightfully claim Murphy’s Island as theirs. Eventually, the county withdrew the plan due to “site toxicity.”

Though the county won a permit for the trail, the advocacy information Kocek shared on the Bald Eagles of Onondaga Lake Facebook page rallied a community. One open comment period on granting a permit attracted more than 100 people. Kocek recalls the county shutting the comment period down after it far exceeded the time allotted for discussion. More than 3,000 people signed letters asking the county not to build the trail. Construction has yet to begin on the project, and the city will need additional funds for the project. For Kocek, this means an opportunity for one last advocacy push. “We still have some fight in us,” she says. “We want to continue to work with [the county] in a positive way. But this is just one thing. We have to put our foot down, and we can’t just let it happen.”

The conservation story of the bald eagle, to birdwatchers, marks an enormous success fueled by grassroots fights like the one Onondaga Audubon currently wages. In the 1970s, practices like DDT use, which contaminated eagle habitats and food sources, and illegal shooting ravaged eagle populations in the United States. This prompted the passage of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940, followed by the first Endangered Species Preservation Act. After years of added governmental protection, cleanup efforts, and specifically outlined recovery plans, in 2007 the bald eagle was finally officially delisted as a threatened and endangered species.

That national conservation success also has played out locally on Onondaga Lake, a body of water with its own history of environmental woes. In fact, that eagles exist to defend is a departure from New York State history. In the 1970s, there was only one known nesting pair of bald eagles in the state. Now, Kocek has counted more than 100 eagles on some days at the roost, catching fish, perching along the branches, or soaring over the lake. As a top predator, the return of eagles to Onondaga Lake means the return of the fish and other wildlife they depend on for food. The popularity of Onondaga Lake with eagles reflects the lake’s continuing recovery from decades of pollutants. Today, Onondaga Lake is the largest urban roost for wintering bald eagles in New York State.

Chris Lajewski, director of the Montezuma Audubon Center, has been involved with that conservation effort. Lajewski serves as the director of the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps, a volunteer-based group that has worked to decontaminate the lake and rehabilitate the eagle habitat. To date, Lajewski says they’ve engaged nearly 1,000 people in their restoration project.

“Our role is really to inspire the future stewards of the lake, watershed, and all the habitats of the wildlife that are found there,” Lajewski says.

But the significance of the eagle in the history of the region extends beyond post-1900s conservation efforts. For members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the eagle represents a guardian of peace, and its image is often pictured hovering over the Great Tree of Peace in Haudenosaunee cultural arts. “The eagle is a really powerful symbol in the story of how the Haudenosaunee confederacy came together under the great law of peace on the shore of Onondaga Lake over 1,000 years ago,” says Sarah Shute, director of the Skä•noñh - Great Law of Peace Center, which sits near the lake and serves as a Haudenosaunee heritage center focused on telling the story of the native peoples of Central New York. “The eagle was put at the top of the white pine, which is the Tree of Peace and the representative guardian of the peace, and so to see a resurgence of eagles right here at Onondaga Lake is such a powerful symbol.” The lake too is sacred. The creation of the Six Nations Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora and Seneca Nations) occurred there thousands of years ago.

“I have probably seen hundreds of eagles in my life. I've seen them nesting, and I've seen them feeding their young,” Shute says. “I see eagles almost daily here, and it never gets old. It never feels mundane. Whether I am here in the center, and I see them landing in the trees out front or fishing in the lake. Or I see them soaring over the city skyline when I'm driving to and from work. Each and every time it's a special moment.”

eagle resting

An eagle looks over its territory while perched on a fallen log. Photo by Marcia White Bower.

Many share and feel that excitement. For Jason Luscier, a professor of wildlife biology at Le Moyne College and board member of Onondaga Audubon, the poignant and powerful resurgence and the bird’s significance to so many communities fuels that enthusiasm. “Populations have recovered to the point that, as a birdwatcher, seeing a bald eagle is a pretty common occurrence,” he says. “I think that’s really important, there’s definitely a sense of community I think surrounding the wildlife of Onondaga Lake. I mean, ‘Bald Eagles?’ People just gush with passion on that Facebook page.”

Luscier also sees something special about the urban nature of the Onondaga Lake roost. Luscier runs his own Facebook page, Non-Humans of Syracuse, where he highlights wild animals thriving around the city. Recognizing the ingenuity and beauty of wildlife within a city is important to maintaining a connection with nature, Luscier says. “Nearly everybody gets impressed when they see something like an eagle,” he says. “And that’s a gateway into really appreciating nature that I hope happens.”

The pandemic halted Onondaga Audubon’s community bird-walks, cleanup efforts, and in-person events, making the Audubon Facebook group and the ability to share photography through virtual exhibits essential. Members from across the Bald Eagles of Onondaga Lake Facebook group attest to the importance of the roost and of the photography — especially in the past year.

people holding save birds signs

Friends of the eagles gather to protest the proposed trail on Murphy’s Island. Photo via Alison Kocek.

For Daniel Timothy, seeing the bald eagles on Onondaga Lake delivers a full-circle experience. When Timothy graduated from SU in 1980 and relocated to Alaska, he rarely had seen eagles in New York. In Alaska, they were common. Then, New York began transplanting eagles from Alaska as part of a restoration effort. When Timothy and his wife returned to the CNY area years after his retirement, they saw eagles in abundance, due in part to the restoration work. “I love the fact that the eagles we see here are descendants of eagles transplanted from Southeastern Alaska,” he says.

One of the most regular contributors to the group, photographer Sarah Beth Curtis, found that photographing the eagles helps with seasonal affective disorder. She began to make the drive from Nedrow to see them nearly five years ago. “Over the last couple of years, I have learned to see them as the silver lining to a time I usually dread,” she wrote on the Facebook group’s page.

To Curtis, however, the experience of going to see the eagles is about more than just a great photo or a high count. “Seeing people see Eagles for the first time, seeing children follow them with their fingers across the sky, meeting other people who are just as enamored with the birds as I am,” she says, “is all incredibly healing and refreshing.” Curtis relishes the image of strangers, standing together, bundled up and shivering, carrying on conversations they'd never have without the eagles.

Photographer Joe Fratianni, a Syracuse native who presented some of his work at a virtual exhibit last month, says he feels the eagles give the Syracuse community a sense of pride. “Everyone likes the underdog and for many years that was the bald eagle,” he says. “I have personally spoken with people who have traveled from Rochester, Buffalo, and Long Island just to see the eagles on Onondaga Lake. I like to think of them as ‘our eagles.’”

Reflecting on his own time with the eagles, Fratianni described one afternoon he spent at the lake in February. Dismal and overcast in Syracuse early-spring fashion, suddenly the sky cleared and the sun began to set, bathing the sky in a golden hue. By chance, a few eagles flew by — as Fratianni described it, almost as if they were posing for him. “Moments like these bring me back again and again,” he says.

The day I spent on the lake, where occupants in the cluster of cars directed each other to the best viewpoints, I didn’t see an eagle. It was my first time attempting to view from the Destiny Mall site, and I went with little planning in mind. Yet thanks to passers-by such as Ed Guarente, a Syracuse native who has photographed the eagles for more than 10 years, the experience delivered a different kind of fulfillment. Pulling over to assist me, he told me I was just too far up the lake. Those willing to be a bit daring for a great picture drive past the main lot and pull-off by the creek bed. He showed me a photo he’d just captured featuring an eagle perched in the roost against a blue sky, head turned to a right angle, gaze impenetrable. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen an eagle for myself quite yet.

eagle flying

An eagle looks satisfied with it’s fresh catch of the day. Photo by Ed Guarente.

Weeks later, when I did see an eagle for the first time, I was alone. Part of me wished to see a familiar face, someone who had shared their story with me. I wanted to hear the whirr of Guarente’s car approaching. Looking for an eagle felt quite like looking for a shooting star. Someone told me once that to see a shooting star you had to look at the black part of the sky, the stillness and nothingness. Otherwise, you’d be too distracted by everything else the sky shows off. Watching for an eagle felt like that, waiting for the stillness, a brief moment when the light shifted and the echo of the train faded, before I knew what I was looking at.

And when I did, it’s unmistakable — the flecked white tail and golden crested head, the size of which suggests the regality of the animal. It glided across the sky, dipped and perched in a cottonwood, disappearing the instant it settled in the branches. But just as soon as I lost it, another appeared, smaller this time, flying low over the lake, a sliver of wingspan on the horizon. I wondered if this was a juvenile. I reminded myself to ask the Facebook group when I returned home. For now, I just wanted to feel mesmerized and enjoy that shared sense of serenity I’d heard about from birdwatchers. At this moment, I just wanted to watch the eagles soar.

Land Acknowledgement

Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.