Two great dark wings stretch up above the water and then fold back down. The tide is running out, and swaths of mud flats are exposed along the shores of the river. As I approach, I see the big bird in the shallows near the opposite bank, struggling with something. I notice its white head and think of the large black-backed gulls that soar over the river. But when the wings go up again, I see that the whole underside of the bird is dark, so it can’t be a sea gull.
My presence distracts the feathered one from what is probably its dinner. It stares at me, then lifts off and traces two swooping arcs over the water, showing its white tail—it’s a bald eagle, right here on the Hackensack River!
A dark shape flops a few times in the shallows—presumably a fish, making its way back to the deep water. The eagle settles in a tree, and I see that another eagle is already sitting in the branches. I step closer, and my boots almost disappear in the sucking mud. One of the eagles flies to a tree slightly upstream, and I loop inland to a better vantage point. When I step out of the brush onto the bank, it takes off, circling again before it disappears downstream.
I sit on a concrete block, a remnant of some past shoreline structure, regretting that I chased the eagle away and wondering what the other one will do. A gull lands on a distant wedge of mud, near the eagle’s tree, and pecks at something repeatedly.
A common merganser flies past. It’s a female, her grey body low over the water, reddish-brown head stretched out, wings beating in that rapid rhythm characteristic of ducks. Three males follow her, flickers of black and bright white.
The eagle launches from the tree, causing the gull to take off hastily in the opposite direction. The eagle soars downriver, and the gull returns to its ministrations.
I wondered if the eagles were nesting in the area, so I checked in with Capt. Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper. He replied, “There are two known nest sites in the Hackensack Watershed. One is on United Water property in Haworth near the water treatment plant. The other is also on United Water property at Woodcliff Lake. The birds you saw are regular visitors to this part of the river this time of year. They come down from the Great White North and feed on carp and anything else they kill or find.”
I regret that my eagerness to get a good view chased the eagles away. I recommend carrying binoculars and remaining in the shelter of trees if you happen to spot our two visitors.