It’s a thrill to sight an American Bald Eagle! Between December 1st and March 1st in our area, people travel to places near the Mississippi River just to catch a glimpse of our national bird. My husband and I live in a mobile home with a lake at our back yard, and I’ve seen an eagle at least five times without leaving home. I think there is a nest not far away, where eagles stay year round, perhaps because there are several lakes within a few miles to offer sources of fish.
The day we were sitting in the back yard and I was photographing the five cormorants , I was suddenly distracted by a large bird flying overhead. I think the cormorants tipped me off, when they all seemed to be looking up at the huge visitor. I quickly checked to see if it had a white head and tail—and yes, it was an eagle! I took photos as he flew above the lake, did a dive to the water and then circled around before soaring away; and my best photo (above) proves what I saw.
A Symbol of American Patriotism
The eagle has been the national bird of the United States of America and a symbol of American patriotism since 1782. Beginning in the 1950’s, the eagle’s declining population put it on the endangered list for several years. The use of DDT and other pesticides caused problems for many birds as well as the eagle. As those chemicals collected in fish—the eagle’s main diet—it weakened eggshells and led to limited reproduction.
DDT use was restricted in 1972. Together with government conservation efforts, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service was able to remove eagles from the endangered list in 2007. Today, the eagle is still endangered by loss of habitat and illegal hunting. Since they prefer large trees near water, the cutting down of many trees near any body of water can discourage their numbers. One visiting eagle flew up to perch in a tree across the lake when I happened to have my camera ready.
With a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet, weight of 6.5 to 15 pounds, and overall size of 28 to 43 inches, the bald eagle is one of the largest raptors in the world. Females are larger than males. They can fly about 40 mph and at great heights, using thermal convection currents to soar for hours, climbing up to 10,000 feet. On their own they can live 20 to 30 years, in captivity sometimes longer.
Bald eagles favor coasts and lakes where fish are plentiful; but when necessary, they can also eat ducks, snakes, turtles, rabbits, muskrats and dead animals. With an acute sense of sight and powerful talons, they can swoop down on their prey at an angle, reaching speeds up to 100 mph. This next photo was taken in September of 2015 when I got an interesting though blurry shot of a dive to our lake.
The Mating Game
A mature bald eagle seeks a mate when he is 4 or 5 years old, using a courtship procedure including numerous calls and aerial displays. Eagles mate for life, unless one dies. They choose a nesting spot, usually within two miles of a good food source. Using sticks, they build enormous nests called eyries, sometimes over 2 feet deep and 5 feet across. A nest can weigh a ton; one nest was found to weigh two ton.
A female will produce two or three eggs a year, which hatch in about 35 days. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, while the other searches for food or nesting materials. Baby eaglets are born with light gray feathers; at three weeks, their plumage changes to brown.
The American Eagle Foundation website lists several eagle nest cams that you can watch. Go to https://www.eagles.org/what-we-do/educate/live-hd-nest-cams/.
Immature eagles are dark, sometimes mottled with white, but without the distinctive white head and tail markings that develop by five years old. Eaglets are usually out of the nest within three months, and young eagles can roam great distances. I took a photo in April of 2017 of what I believe to be a young eagle, based on the shape of the head and beak as well as the mottled coloring. As a bird gets older, its beak turns from brown to gold. Compare this bird’s beak with that of the eagle in the tree.
Bald eagles have been found in 48 states and as far south as Mexico, but most migrate to Alaska or Canada. More than half (an estimated 70,000) live in Alaska and about 20,000 in British Columbia, Canada. They enjoy the cooler weather and good fishing, especially salmon.
My favorite resource is the free Merlin phone app from the Cornell Lab. It helps me identify various birds with photos, information and sounds. When I heard a lovely melodic song from the tree where the eagle had perched, I checked my phone app for eagle sounds. I’ve heard that sound twice now. Without the phone app, I would never have known what a beautiful voice an eagle has!
Related post: Double-Breasted Cormorants
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