Six years ago a pair of American Bald Eagles nested in the most unlikely of places. Amid the concrete, cars and steel of the most densely populated state inside the most highly populated county, a species once thought lost forever had the tenacity and stubbornness to try and raise a family in place once believed to be impossible. And yet they not only survived but thrived in an urban wilderness not very welcoming to wild creatures
Alice and Al, as these two magnificent symbols of our nation became known , were named after Alice Leurck and her husband Al, as she was the first person the photograph “Alice the Eagle” during a Bergen Audubon field trip at Overpeck Park in Bergen County back in 2010. As the battle to preserve and protect Alice’s nest from a multi-million dollar development project unfolded they soon became a symbol and the line in the sand to defend urban endangered species that decided to take up residence amongst its human neighbors.
Over the years Alice has produced nine eagles from one of the most urbanized nests in the country . Nine more eagles sent into the wild to help continue the comeback of a species that has fought back from the brink of extinction, an accomplishment that should never be taken for granted, always to be admired, and held up for all to see of what can be accomplished when a species is given a chance to survive.
This season started different than in past years. An agreement by developers to preserve Alice and Al’s home as an eagle park gave everyone a sense of relief and accomplishment. And as a record number of eagles began to gather around the nest site on the Overpeck, it confirmed our long time argument that this area was critical not only to nesting eagles but also as an important Bald Eagle wintering habitat which deserved equal protection.
But as nesting time approached and everyone anticipated another successful season it was soon realized that Alice the Eagle was nowhere to be found. We also soon came to see that she had been replaced by a new, larger female now taking up residence in her long time nest.
As much as I dreaded and denied it I knew this day would have to come, for an eagle’s life is full of threats and everyday dangers, from the hazards of urban life from electric wires, cars and trucks to competition from other eagles contending for prime nesting areas and mates.
Alice was at least 13 years old, getting up there for a wild Bald Eagle. Was she driven off ? Did she meet with an untimely death? We may never know. But what we do know for sure is that Alice the Eagle will never be forgotten.
Alice was and is a symbol of hope for not only hard core conservationists but also for the everyday person that understood that something special happened right in their neighborhood. As the morning commutes took place and millions moved to the jobs and schools there were nesting Bald Eagles in suburban Bergen County. Among the tension, sprawl and stress of life in New Jersey something happened never thought possible. A sight not witnessed in many generations was now seen by all in a tribute to what can be accomplished when good people care enough and work together to do the right thing.
We are not theoretically supposed to be concerned over an individual wild creature. Rather, our focus, we are told, should always be on the overall health of the species. But while our brain tells us one thing our hearts tell us quite another: We miss Alice.
This is not to in any way to diminish the importance of this new eagle pair . They are just as magnificent and should be equally cherished because they help prove what a prolific and vital an eagle habitat the Overpeck is. They will be looked at in just as much awe and wonder and be fought for just as hard as any Bald Eagle pair ever has. That is without question.
But Alice after all was the first, and there will always something extraordinary and unforgettable about that. I want to believe that Alice still flies wild, that somewhere she is catching fish and giving people a thrill of a lifetime that are honored to see a Bald Eagle for the very first time.
I know that Alice will never be forgotten by anyone who had the delight and privilege of watching her grace the skies of the Overpeck. Alice gave us a reason to stand together for what was right and gave us the strength to understand that anything is possible because eagles now fly once more in our heart and hometown. Godspeed Alice, wherever you are.