Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Better hurry up if you want to catch the amazing flight of soaring bald eagles in north Alabama through the Lake Guntersville State Park’s Eagle Awareness program.
Only a few weekends remain to enjoy learning about and watching bald eagles, some that make Lake Guntersville home, and some that just visit for the winter because of an abundance of habitat and food.
In fact, this has been a bumper year for bald eagles in Alabama because of the especially harsh winter.
“Fortunately for us, it’s been so cold up North that it’s pushed a lot more birds down our way,” said Park Naturalist Patti Donnellan, who is in charge of the Eagle Awareness program, which was started by Linda Reynolds 29 years ago at Guntersville.
“The bald eagle is a large bird, standing 2 to 3 feet tall,” Donnellan said of the national symbol of the United States. “Sitting on a branch, it’s a large bird. The wingspan is about 6 feet, and the birds usually weigh 12 to 14 pounds here in Alabama.”
Donnellan explained Bergmann’s rule of animal sizes, which is somewhat determined by latitude. As a general rule, the farther north an animal lives, the larger it is. This is especially true for the cervid species like deer, and it also applies to eagles. Donnellan said eagles in Alaska can weigh as much as 18 pounds.
Of course, food availability has a lot to do with size as well. At Lake Guntersville, there is plenty to eat. There’s a year-round supply of fish, and plenty of coots, water birds that swim like a duck but are more closely related to the crane family, in the fall and winter.
“About two-thirds of an eagle’s diet is fish, but they’ll eat just about anything they can get their talons on,” Donnellan said. “They love coots. If you’re out eagle-watching on your own and you see a mass of coots who think there’s safety in numbers, look up because there’s probably an eagle flying around overhead. They’ll eat any kind of duck. I’ve seen them eat snakes. They’ll eat road kill. One of their nasty habits is stealing from other birds.”
Speed also helps eagles when it comes to catching prey. Donnellan said eagles can fly at speeds up to 40 miles per hour but can reach 100 mph in a dive with the wings tucked.
Donnellan said they were able to witness one dive-bomb attack by an eagle near the Guntersville Dam.
“There was a red-tailed hawk circling around the (eagles’) nest,” she said. ‘The missus was sitting on the nest and she screamed, ‘Honey, we’ve got trouble.’ Here he comes from the river, flying pretty fast. All of a sudden, he tucked those wings and turned on the afterburners, flying straight at the nest. He chased that hawk down into the brush, and we never saw that hawk again.”
That dive-bombing eagle was named Barney, who succumbed to old age last year. Barney was part of a reintroduction program from 1985-1991.
“Eagles can live to be 25 to 30 years old,” Donnellan said. “Barney was hatched in 1989. The last time we saw him was in December 2012. That’s a good, long time for a wild bird.”
Eagles mate for life and it took Barney’s mate, Thelma Lou, quite some time to pick a successor and set up house in the nest near Guntersville dam.
“The nest is massive,” Donnellan said. “The record nest in Ohio is 9 feet across, 20 feet deep and weighs 2,000 pounds. Our nest at the dam is approaching this.”
Donnellan said the new male eagle did a little remodeling in the nest and the pair successfully raised one eaglet last year.
“Thelma Lou’s time clock was a little off because of losing Barney,” she said. “Typically, our eagles are incubating eggs right now or feeding newly hatched young. Eagles can have from one to three eggs per nest. An eagle egg is surprisingly small. It’s only 30 percent larger than a chicken egg.”
Donnellan said the eaglet’s rate of growth is phenomenal because of the protein-rich meals provided by the parents.
“An eaglet can go from being hatched to full size in three months,” she said. “They are as big as their parents in three months’ time. They’ll hang around the parents for that first full year, learning how to be an eagle, learning how to fish and hunt, and learning how to watch for those big metal things coming down the road. Then when it’s the next nesting season, mom and dad say, ‘Out you go.’ They’re done with them after that first year.
“We have a lot of young eagles that spend the winter with us. The adult eagles have their established areas up North. The adults tell the young eagles to go find someplace else to hang out in the winter, so they come here.”
Donnellan said eagles don’t reach full maturity until 5 years old and will not get the full white head until that age.
“I remember as a small child, second or third grade, doing a book report on eagles,” Donnellan said. “I said I hope to get to see one one day. Now I get to go out and see them all the time because of restoration projects throughout the Southeast and East.”
A plethora of problems – loss of habitat, pesticide (DDT) use and poaching – pushed eagle populations to the brink of extinction nationwide. Alabama’s restoration project was started in 1984 by the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Nongame Wildlife Program.
However, the restoration process was not simple for eagles. It required that an egg be retrieved from nests with three eggs. The retrieved eggs were incubated, hatched and reared in special cages that kept the interaction with humans concealed. Then came the hacking process, and we’re not talking about computers here. An eagle must be “hacked” to a certain location. Hacking is the process where eagles are forced to take their first flights, which gives them an imprint of that area. After they’re hacked, the eagles will return to that area to nest when they reach reproductive age, usually 4 to 6 years old.
Wildlife biologists successfully hacked 91 juveniles in Alabama between 1985 and 1991. More than 20 years later, there are more than 77 bald eagle nests confirmed in our state. Donnellan said Marshall County has an estimated 18 eagle nests.
More important, the bald eagle was taken off the Federal Endangered Species list in 2007.
“Alabama, being the beautiful place it is, eagles love it here,” Donnellan said. “We’ve got plenty of trees and running water that doesn’t freeze. We estimate that between 700 and 1,000 eagles winter in Alabama each year. A lot of them will stop at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, but Reelfoot is frozen this year.
PHOTOS: (USFWS for eagle, David Rainer) Park Naturalist Patti Donnellan scans the dawn for bald eagles at Town Creek Fishing Center at Lake Guntersville State Park during one of the Eagle Awareness weekends. The park is rated as the top place in the state to watch the majestic bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States.