Wildlife conservation spreads its wings at the Hudson River EagleFest


Avery Kim '24

The Hudson River EagleFest educates locals about raptors and conservation.

Along the windy banks of the Hudson River, birdwatchers focused their binoculars, scopes, and cameras on the sky.  High above, a North American bald eagle swooped into the trees, carrying with it a conservation success story.  The 19th annual Teatown Hudson River EagleFest took place February 4, celebrating the eagle’s return to New York after hunting and pesticides led to the near-extinction of the species in the mid to late 1900s.  The EagleFest raised awareness about the effects of human development on wildlife and held its annual bird-of-prey photography competition, according to teatown.org.  Mr. Kevin Williamson, Upper School Photography and Design Teacher, discussed the overlap between photography and conservation.

A photographer focuses on a bald eagle in Verplanck, New York.  Avery Kim ’24

EagleFest attendees gathered at Croton Point Park, New York, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to observe and learn about bald eagles and other raptor speciesEnvironmental educators including Mr. Carl Heitmuller of the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum, wildlife rehabilitator Mr. Bobby Horvath, and African eagle conservationist Mr. Jim Soto provided live falconry demonstrations.  Their exhibits featured birds of prey including the bald eagle, the golden eagle, the red-tailed hawk, the Eastern screech owl, the kestrel, and the gyrfalcon.  Other programs informed Hudson Valley residents about biodiversity, local wildlife, and habitat loss, according to teatown.org.

Bald eagles are visible in the skies above nearby river towns such as Croton-on-Hudson, Cold Spring, Bear Mountain, Peekskill, and Verplanck because they feed primarily on fish, according to teatown.orgAfter hatching, fledglings spend 12 weeks in the nest before learning to fly.  By 18 weeks, eaglets are independent.  They reach maturity after four or five years, gaining their distinctive white head feathers.  When selecting a mate, bald eagles practice a unique courtship routine.  Prospective partners fly high into the sky, then lock talons and whirl to the ground in an aerial “cartwheel” dance.  The lifelong pair then constructs a nest, which is about six feet wide and four feet deep, raising one or two nestlings each year.  Bald eagles’ talons, acute vision, and nearly seven-foot wingspans make them skilled hunters, according to nationalgeographic.com.  

A bald eagle perches along New York’s Hudson River, where it was once virtually extinct.  Avery Kim ’24

While eagles may seem invincible, human hunting and habitat destruction led to a population decline in the 1800s.  Despite the 1942 Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited the killing and sale of eagle parts, numbers continued to plummet due to the increased use of the insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), according to fws.gov.  

The DDT chemical entered into waterways and contaminated fish, the bald eagle’s main food source, leading to infertility and calcium-deficient eggshells that broke during incubation.  To combat the pesticide, environmental scientist Ms. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, exposing DDT’s ruinous effects.  Her book helped prompt the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972 ban on DDT, according to fws.gov.  

Following the DDT ban, bald eagles began to recover and repopulate their former territory.  In 2007, they achieved removal from the Endangered Species list.  The bald eagle population quadrupled in the continental US between 2009 and 2019, according to nationalgeographic.com.

Mr. Williamson shared that, like Silent Spring, photography is a medium that can promote change.  He spoke about nature photographers Mr. Carleton Watkins, Mr. William Henry Jackson, and Mr. Ansel Adams, whose landscape photos of the American West were instrumental in the advancement of the National Parks System.  National Parks and other environmental preservations provide crucial habitats for species like the bald eagle, according to nps.gov.

“It was pictures,” Mr. Williamson said.  “It was something so simple, but the beauty of them is what convinced lawmakers to preserve the land for public use.”

Current conservation photographers Mr. Steven Sachs, Ms. Rachael Heiss, Ms. Tara Montalvo, and Mr. Ryan Murphy received recognition at the EagleFest as the winners of the 2023 bird-of-prey photography competition, according to teatown.org.  Mr. Williamson also photographs nature, producing monochrome landscapes as well as portraits that capture the relationship between humans and the environment.  He explained that his interest in nature, now evident in his art, stemmed from his childhood.

“My dad would always take my brother and me fishing and hiking, so it was really just natural, when I picked up a camera and fell in love with photography, to start taking pictures of those beautiful landscapes,” Mr. Williamson said.  “In the beginning, I was very focused on getting the most perfect nature picture, but I’ve transitioned into incorporating man-made structures into my pictures: not only nature but also the ways people interact with nature is what I’m most interested in.”

Mr. Williamson not only photographs landscapes but also explores the ways in which humans interact with nature.  Courtesy of Mr. Kevin Williamson

Despite the success of the DDT ban, bald eagles continue to suffer from human development, as logging and construction claim forests and nesting lands along the water, according to dec.ny.gov.  Eagles and other birds of prey experience ongoing lead poisoning, illegal hunting, and electrocution, according to nationalgeographic.org.  

Other North American wildlife including the California condor, the Plains bison, the Key deer, and the red wolf remain far from the success story of the bald eagle.  Public and private programs exist to help conserve these species, but human interference continues to jeopardize their numbers.  For instance, illegal killing accounted for 57 percent of Mexican wolf deaths in 2021, natural causes for 17 percent, and traffic collisions for 11 percent, according to fws.gov

Mr. Williamson shared that his photography, while open to creative interpretation, often contains the theme of balancing human development with nature.  He noted that his art does not impose an opinion on viewers but instead invites them to consider the challenge of coexistence. 

“It’s more about presenting a problem than providing solutions,” Mr. Williamson said.  “For example, photographing places that are simultaneously beautiful, but then in some way destroyed by man-made intervention.  It’s a difficult thing because there are no easy answers.  It’s not like we can tear down every single building and plant trees because we need places to live.  I think that’s what my work really explores and shows: that there is no really easy answer.” 

Featured Image by Avery Kim ’24