The majestic bald eagle is a regular attraction around Lake Guntersville State Park. Eagles have also been spotted as regulars over lakes on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.
On a particular morning eagles can be seen sailing along the tree line on the backwaters of Lake Guntersville. Some will take a perch near the shore watching for fish or some other wild game. A majority the eagles can be juveniles, about 2 to 3 years old. The younger birds do not have the striking white crest on the head that is a familiar sight with mature eagles.
In the coming year, the Alabama State Parks will celebrate their 75th anniversary. Part of that celebration is Eagle Awareness Weekends beginning Jan. 10 and running through Feb. 16. Special events, tours, hikes and eagle observations are available each weekend.
Eagles at home in Alabama
“We have about 12 pairs of eagles that nest around Guntersville,” said Patti Donnellan, a naturalist with the Alabama State Parks System. “These are resident eagles and live in the area year-round.”
During the past 20 years, Eagle Awareness has been a tradition at Lake Guntersville State Park. The activity is for all ages to enjoy and is also a method to educate the public about the importance of protecting a valuable national treasure.
From 1985-91, young bald eagles were “hacked” and released each spring through the Alabama Non-Game Wildlife Program in an effort to restore a nesting population of eagles with the state. Hacking is a process that simulates natural nesting conditions and provides releases with a minimum of human exposure.
Fifty-four eaglets were released during the spring of 1991. The total number of eagles released under the program stands at 91. Bald eagles have a strong tendency to return to the vicinity where they learned to fly when they are ready to mate and raise their own young. This occurs when they are 4 to 5 years old.
“We have some eagles that migrate down from the Great Lakes region to spend the winter here around the lake,” Donnellan said. “They will usually begin their trip back around late February to early March.”
Today there are some 10,000 nesting pairs of eagles in the U.S. and every state has at least one pair. Here in Alabama the bald eagle has made a remarkable comeback because of the efforts and restocking program by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Until the Bald Eagle Restoration Project which began in Alabama in 1984, eagles had not nested in the state since 1949. From 1984-91 there were 91 pairs of juvenile eagles released in the state in hopes to generate a nesting population. From the latest survey in 2006 there were 77 bald eagle nests documented by wildlife biologists, which was a 21 percent increase from 2005.
Today in the lower 48 states, there is estimated to be more that 7,066 breeding pairs of bald eagles. Alaska holds the largest population of eagles of any single state.
Eagles were once in decline
The bald eagle, America’s symbol of freedom and power, is found only in North America. Adult eagles weigh in from around 9 to 12 pounds with a wing span of about 7 to 8 feet. Female eagles are slightly larger than the males. The distinctive white head and tail of the bald eagle does not develop until the bird is about 4 to 6 years of age.
After the enactment of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the bald eagle was listed as endangered throughout the lower 48 states, except in Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, where it was designated as threatened. The bald eagle has never been listed as threatened or endangered in Alaska where populations have always remained stable.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was estimated that close to 1 million bald eagles once inhabited the United States. The population began a drastic decrease in the 1950s and 60s mainly because of the effects of DDT, a commonly used pesticide during that time. Many of the eagles fed on contaminated fish and become sterile over a period of time. Other eagles continued to breed, but the DDT caused the eggs to become weak and fragile and most did not hatch.
The efforts to increase the eagle population in all states have been successful, and it was removed from the Endangered Species Act. However, bald eagles remain protected under the Bald Eagle Protection Act.
Eagles generally feed on fish, but waterfowl and small mammals also make up a part of their diet. Top flying speed for an adult eagle is about 30 mph. and they can dive at speeds approaching 100 mph. With their superb eyesight, eagles can spot fish swimming near the surface at a distance of one mile.
Bald eagles mate for life and can reach an age of 40 years. In the South, mating usually begins in the late fall. The female eagle will lay from one to three eggs and the incubation period is about 35 days. During incubation one parent will always remain with the nest to protect it from predators.
After hatching the eaglets grow very fast. In only three weeks, the young chicks are one foot high and their feet and beaks are nearly adult size. At just six weeks the eaglets are as nearly as large as their parents. The young birds are ready for their first flight at about 10 to 13 weeks. Tragically, about 40 percent of the young eagles do not survive their first flight.
The general schedule for eagle watching at Lake Guntersville lists Friday nights as a social/orientation at the lodge. Saturday offers morning and evening guided field trips to nesting sites and indoor interpretive programs with guest speakers and live birds. Sunday is more guided field trips in the early morning to nesting sites. All events are free with the exception of meals and lodging.
Eagle watchers can show up either day and are not required to participate in the other events. A reminder, all events are free. The eagle weekends are educational, fun and great for families.
Also, the North Alabama Birding Trail offers 50 sites traversing the Tennessee Valley Region. Viewing sites are identified by signage with a kingfisher logo along highways and roads.
Selected spots on the trail which offer good opportunities to view bald eagles include Natchez Trace Parkway/Colbert Ferry, North Sauty Creek WMA/Sauty Cave NWR and Buck’s Pocket State Park, Morgan’s Cove, and South Sauty Creek. Lake Guntersville State Park and Waterloo are usually the best locations on the trail for viewing eagles. For more information, visit www.northalabamabirdingtrail.com.
Nesting eagles can be observed near the Guntersville Dam. During the past several years eagles have had their nests in the tall pines in the wooded area around the dam. Some nests can be seen from the road and if you are lucky you might get a peek at an eaglet.
“Be sure to dress warmly and wear good hiking boots,” Donnellan said. “Bring along your camera and/or a pair of binoculars for easy viewing.”
For more information on the Eagle Awareness Weekends you can contact park naturalist Patti Donnellan at (256) 571-5445 or by email at Patti.Donnellan@dcnr.alabama.gov.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at ChrJohn7@aol.com.