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Levin: Looking for eagles

08/07/09 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(HOST) Eagles are back in Vermont and back in the headlines, reminding commentator Ted Levin of how far he used to go to see them.   

(LEVIN) I have been doing some work for the Vermont Center for Eco Studies editing the second Breeding Bird Atlas of Vermont. It's a project that compares and discusses changes in bird distribution since the completion of the first Atlas more than twenty-five years ago. Between 1976 and 1981, for instance, no bald eagles nested in Vermont. The second Atlas confirmed two eagle nests. And this summer, a year after Atlas fieldwork ended, there have been six confirmed nests, two of which fledged young: one in Barnet, the other in Concord.
    
Back in the early eighties, if I wanted to watch bald eagles I would drive to the Mongaup River, where it spills out of the southwest corner of New York's Catskill Mountains, en route to the nearby Delaware River.

One winter morning in 1975, I drove to Monticello, took a motel room, and continued south for fourteen miles to Forestburg, a tiny bedroom community for the Orange and Rockland Utilities Corporation, the company that owns and maintains the hydroelectric dams along the Mongaup.
   
After driving six miles along the river I found a boat ramp with a sign that warned "Trespassers Beware." I decided to take my chances, parked the van and without a second thought, headed across the frozen river toward a couple of ice shanties. Surely the fishermen would have noticed any eagles nearby. A hundred yards from the shore, the ice gave way.
   
I attempted a series of muscle-ups, but each time the ice fractured. Finally, I reached a stiff shelf of ice and slid forward. Afraid to stand, I crawled across the ice, reached firm ground, and ran to my van, only to find it embedded in the mud. Without help, I wasn't going anywhere.
   
Gene Raponi watches bald eagles. He works for the utility company and lives down the road from the boat ramp, in the only house for miles. He dislikes people who ignore signs, who wander onto private property and fall through the ice. Reluctantly, he and his sons helped me push the van out.
   
Five years later, in 1980, I brought my endangered species class to the Mongaup. After watching eagles all morning, we stopped to see Gene Raponi. I was relieved that he didn't seem to recognize me. He was pleased that we had traveled from northern New England to enjoy the eagles, and he listened attentively to our stories. Then, he told us about a woodchuck that had bluffed an immature eagle into giving up an attack and about an adult that caught a Canada goose after a spirited chase. But he saved his most entertaining story for last. It was about a guy who had ignored the warning signs, fallen through the ice, and gotten stuck in the mud. Sure enough, my class had already heard about it - from me.

As Gene began, they looked at me and started to laugh. Gene stopped and stared at me for a moment. Hard. Then he called to his wife. "Honey," he yelled, "the idiot's back."
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