A Delaware Water Gap and Upper Delaware River Snapshot
Facilities: Seasonal visitor centers, multiple access and accommodations.
Driving Directions: To Lackawaxen: From Interstate 84, take exit 34 for State Route 739 toward Lords Valley/Dingmans Ferry. Turn left at State Route 739 N/Dingmans Turnpike. Proceed about a mile and turn right onto State Route 434 N/Well Road. In 5.5 miles, continue onto State Route 590 West and go 4.4 miles to Lackawaxen.
Viewing Directions: Begin at the winter field office in Lackawaxen. All access points along the Upper Delaware River and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area provide the opportunity to spot wintering eagles.
Property Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Best Eagle Viewing Season: Winter, but good eagle watching in all seasons.
Activities at the site: Hunting and fishing in designated areas, whitewater boating, birding, hiking and camping.
Other Wildlife: Birds of prey, songbirds, shorebirds, aquatic mammals.
Where to go, what to look for
Even during the coldest of winters, the waters along parts of the Upper Delaware River remain open. The river narrows in places where the water churns and tumbles, strengthening the current and preventing freezing. The flowing river keeps an abundant supply of fish available for bald eagles. As lakes and rivers in the northern United States and Canada freeze over, bald eagles migrate south. Some birds travel more than 900 miles to the area in search of open water bordered by substantial forestland. Undisturbed stands of trees are important to wintering eagles. In winter, this large bird of prey needs protective trees for roosting at night and during bad weather, and perch sites for hunting fish and resting during the day.
The Upper Delaware River has the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in Pennsylvania and is part of the largest wintering eagle habitat in Northeast. Between 150 and 200 eagles migrate to the region each winter. On the Pennsylvania side of the river, a strip one mile wide, running 73 miles along the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and, below Milford, another 38 miles along the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, is designated as an Important Bird Area. The extensive site is especially important for migrating birds and wading birds, including Species of Greatest Conservation Need that frequent the area during spring and fall migrations.
Depending on weather patterns up north, eagles may begin arriving on the Upper Delaware in mid December. Eagle numbers peak in January and February, and by mid to late March, most migrating eagles have returned to their breeding territories in the north. The Upper Delaware is home to about 20 adult eagle pairs that remain to nest and raise young there. These resident eagles, along with several immature birds too young to breed and some additional adult eagles, are seen throughout spring and summer along the Upper Delaware River.
The Eagle Institute is a non-profit organization concerned with protecting eagles and eagle habitat. In cooperation with the National Park Service, the organization operates a winter field office in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania between January and mid March. The Eagle Institute provides weekend educational and interpretive programs, maps and directions to public viewing sites, and guided tours. Trained volunteers are stationed at the viewing sites to collect data, monitor eagles and assist visitors in spotting eagles. The winter field office is along Lackawaxen Scenic Drive just south of the Roebling Bridge.
Bald eagles spend the majority of their time perched on sturdy branches along the river. Some branches overlook productive fishing holes, while others are just suitable places to rest or eat a fresh catch. Perch branches must be sturdy enough to support this 8- to 12-pound bird and the limb usually provides a favorable vantage point to spot any threat. Eagles also may fish on the wing by flying over the water while scanning for prey that swims near the surface. Watching an eagle plunge into the icy water for a fish is a thrilling sight. Sometimes eagles catch a fish and tear it apart at the shallow edge of the river or on a sheet of stationary or floating ice.
Lackawaxen is a good starting point for eagle viewing in the area. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Zane Grey Access along Lackawaxen Scenic Drive is an eagle viewing spot. The Lackawaxen River joins the Delaware here creating excellent fishing opportunities for eagles. From the boat launch, the view up and down the river is broad and eagles may be spotted in either direction. At this and other riverside viewing sites, eagle watchers should practice the eagle viewing guidelines in Bald Eagle Nest Etiquette to avoid disturbing or flushing an eagle. Flushing eagles in winter makes them waste valuable energy, increases stress, and decreases their ability to forage in favored locations during the most critical time of year for obtaining nutrition.
To the north is another Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission boat access called the Narrowsburg Access along Route 652/Honesdale and Delaware Turnpike. This parking and boat launch is across the river from Narrowsburg, NY, a designated eagle viewing site in NY. The National Park Service has access points at Buckingham, Callicoon and Matamoras. It is possible to see eagles from any of the boat launches and river accesses.
To the south, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area begins above Milford. The river valley widens in this section, with broader bottomlands, river islands and large pools of calm water. Periods of low water expose sand and gravel bars. The best places to look for eagles along this section of the river are at Milford Beach on Route 209 and Smithfield Beach on River Road. The Bushkill Access also is a good place to spot eagles.
The bald eagle is not the only bird of prey inhabiting the Upper Delaware as ospreys also fish the river and nest along its shores. Common raptors of the area include broadwinged, sharp-shinned, Cooper's, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. Most of these species are associated with the extensive forests along the river and in the Pocono Mountains. The northern goshawk is a rare and local nesting species in the mature stands of hemlock and mixed deciduous and conifer forests of the region. There also is a history of peregrine falcons nesting on cliffs along the Delaware River. On occasion, a golden eagle is seen migrating over the ridges here in addition to the bald eagles. More than 260 bird species have been identified in the river corridor and bordering habitats.
Deciduous forest covers much of the land inter-mixed with hemlock-covered slopes and ravines. Where hemlock dominates, birds such as the Blackburnian warbler, black-throated green warbler, blue-headed vireo, golden-crowned kinglet, magnolia warbler, and winter wren can be found. Along the Delaware and its tributaries, it is possible to find the Acadian flycatcher, Louisiana waterthrush and other riparian forest song-birds in the ravines, especially where there are some hemlocks. The ruffed grouse, red-eyed vireo, wood thrush, and ovenbird are common in the forest. The tall trees along the river and in hollows also are home to the Audubon Priority Species, such as the cerulean warbler and other canopy specialists like warbling vireo and northern parula. The expansion of cerulean warbler into the Upper Delaware River region in recent decades is a positive trend contrary to its generally negative decline. It is common for trout anglers and boaters to see bands of cedar waxwings catching flies and picking cherries off of trees overhanging the water. It also is a woodpecker hot-spot. It is fairly easy to see red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers. It is one of the few places in eastern Pennsylvania where red-headed woodpeckers also can be found. Several swallow species are commonly found along the river, especially northern rough-winged and cliff swallows that nest on bridges. Given the mix of habitats, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreational Area is one of the best places in the watershed to find migrating warblers. During spring and fall migration, 30 warbler species can be found throughout the area.
Like much of the region, the birds of early succession habitat including old fields, thickets, and young forests, have declined in the Delaware River Valley, particularly in the National Recreational Area. Yet, the persistent field observer can find places where there are willow flycatchers, gray catbirds, prairie warblers, song sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds. Colorful yellow warblers, indigo buntings, and common yellow-throats are locally common. Tree swallows and eastern bluebirds use nest boxes here and easily can be found. Dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows are common in migration and winter, but move north or to higher elevations in the summer. Of course, in winter, the common woods birds like tufted titmouse white-breasted nut-hatch, and northern cardinal are fairly easy to see.
For additional information, contact:
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Visitor Services Division, Bushkill, PA 18324-9999. Phone: 570-426-2452.
Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreation River, Superintendent, 274 River Road, Beach Lake, PA 18405. Telephone: 570-729-7134.
By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross