Where the Eagles Are

With bald eagle numbers soaring, you can now see great gatherings of wintering eagles all across the Lower 48

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Dec 01, 2005

A GROWING TORRENT of bald eagles winging over icy waters marks the first days of November on the California-Oregon border. Casting massive shadows over the eastern side of the Cascades, the eagles approach from as far as Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Alaska's Chilkat River on their annual pilgrimage to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. One by one, the mammoth birds buzz the flocks of geese and ducks gliding across the refuge waters, then circle back to weed out the weakest members.

By December, the eagles cluster together between hunting forays, like groups of white-haired men yakking about the weather. Come New Year's Day their numbers can be 500 strong, and the neighboring Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge can host several hundred more. "You will see them perched in willow trees along the auto routes and standing on the ice, a lot of times with other raptors, ravens and even coyotes," says Klamath Basin refuge biologist Dave Mauser. "The birds are fairly used to people, allowing visitors closer views than most other places, often from 50 feet away."

At night, the eagles roost on outstretched limbs of Douglas fir trees and ponderosa pines in a shadowy mountain forest beyond the eastern edge of the refuge. Just before sunrise, they lift off en mass and wing toward their feeding grounds. "It's amazing to see large numbers of these birds flying right over your head," Mauser says.

RECOVERED FROM NEAR EXTINCTION, bald eagles are once again numerous on the Upper Mississippi River and elsewhere in the Lower 48. Wintering eagles frequently perch on outstretched tree limbs adjacent to lakes and waterways.

The annual concentration of bald eagles in the Klamath Basin is a sign of the species' remarkable recovery throughout the Lower 48. Throngs of eagles from Alaska and Canada have always shifted south in winter. But eagle numbers in the contiguous United States had plummeted by the 1960s, when fewer than 500 nesting pairs survived south of the Canadian border. Today, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) prepares to graduate our national symbol from the Endangered Species List, that number has grown to more than 7,000 pairs of year-round residents. Winter populations also have increased steadily, says Karen Steenhof, a U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who oversees the annual mid-winter bald eagle survey in the contiguous United States, a program launched by the National Wildlife Federation in 1979.

Steenhof remembers a time when it was rare to see bald eagles in many parts of the country, including Idaho, where she lives. Now, from the windswept shores of the Chesapeake Bay to Washington State's winding Skagit River, dozens, even hundreds, of the birds congregate each winter along waters in every state except Hawaii.

DESPITE A WINGSPAN as wide as eight feet, bald eagles are agile fliers. Dexterity plays a critical role in territorial battles, hunting and courtship. Young bald eagles, such as these birds sparring over a snow goose kill in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, remain dark brown in color until their fourth or fifth year, when their head and tail feathers turn white.

Steenhof began her eagle-watching career at South Dakota's Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge, named for a senator who worked on an early version of the law most credited for the eagle's recovery, the Endangered Species Act. If it weren't for this law, along with the nationwide ban of DDT in 1972, scientists say the eagle could not have recovered to current levels.

Jody Millar, the FWS biologist heading the team that will monitor the bald eagle after delisting, says the numbers of eagles wintering along the Upper Mississippi River now rival those of Alaska's Chilkat River, which boasts the world's largest winter bald eagle population. "We have estimated that as many as 4,000 eagles winter along the Upper Mississippi," says Millar. However, the eagles are spread over several hundred miles, resulting in a smaller population density than on the Chilkat.

Ten Great Places to See Eagles This Winter

1. KLAMATH BASIN, on the California-Oregon border, hosts the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the Lower 48. As many as 1,000 eagles occupy the refuge complex during the peak months of January and February. Many of the birds are visible from the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake auto tours. Call the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge at (530) 667-2231, or visit the refuge online at http://klamathbasinrefuges.fws.gov.

2. UPPER SKAGIT RIVER WATERSHED in Northwest Washington draws hundreds of eagles to tens of thousands of dead and dying salmon at the end of the spawning season. Eagle numbers peak in late December and early January. Contact the Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in mid-December through mid-February at (360) 853-7077, or (360) 853-7283 during the rest of the year. Information is also available at www.skagiteagle.org.

3. UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER is jam-packed with bald eagles in winter, and some of the best views are available below the locks and dams. Visit Nelson Dewey State Park in Cassville, Wisconsin, in December through February. Contact the park at (608) 725-5374, and find out more about Cassville's eagles at www.cassville.org/nelsondewey.html.

4. MISSOURI'S SQUAW CREEK NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE is festooned with bald eagles in November and December, when the waterfowl population peaks. Many eagles perch along the main auto loop. Contact the refuge at (800) 877-8339, or visit http://midwest.fws.gov/SquawCreek.

5. WOLF LODGE BAY within Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho is frequented by dozens of migratory bald eagles when the kokanee salmon start to spawn. The eagles begin arriving in November, and the largest concentrations generally occur in late December and early January. Contact the Bureau of Land Management at (208) 769-5000. For an online brochure including a map of eagle viewing sites, see www.id.blm.gov/publications/data/eagles_wlb.pdf.

6. QUABBIN RESERVOIR in Massachusetts is one of the Northeast's best-known winter eagle lookouts. Bald eagles were introduced there in the 1980s. Today, year-round resident eagles are joined by dozens more in winter, with numbers peaking in February. Contact the visitor center at (413) 323-7221.

7. KARL E. MUNDT NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE in South Dakota hosts anywhere from 50 to 200 bald eagles in winter. The birds begin to arrive in late October. Numbers peak in December and January. Contact the refuge at (605) 487-7603, or visit http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/refuges/mundt.

8. NEW YORK'S HUDSON RIVER AND SULLIVAN COUNTY provide abundant opportunities to see congregations of wintering bald eagles less than a two-hour drive from midtown Manhattan. Contact the Hudson River Foundation, (212) HUDSONR or visit www.hudsonriver.org. For information about Sullivan County's eagles, call The Eagle Institute at (845) 557-6162, or visit www.eagleinstitute.org.

9. BLACKWATER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE in Maryland is a place to see abundant eagles not only in winter, but also throughout the rest of the year. The refuge hosts a healthy breeding population of bald eagles and high concentrations of wintering eagles drawn by migratory waterfowl each winter. Contact the refuge at (410) 228-2677 or see http://blackwater.fws.gov.

10. OKLAHOMA'S RIVER AND RESERVOIRS host large numbers of bald eagles each winter. Some of the best public viewing is available at three sites: Kaw Lake near Ponca City, Salt Plains Lake near Enid and the Keystone Reservoir on the confluence of the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers on the west side of Tulsa. Contact the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at (405) 521-4616, or visit www.wildlifedepartment.com/species.htm.

For viewing locations throughout the continental United States, see the web exclusive "Eagle Watching in Winter" below.

Surprisingly, the region in the Lower 48 with some of the most pronounced gains in eagle numbers during the past three decades is the heavily developed Northeast. In New York State, the bald eagle population has rebounded from a single nonreproductive pair in 1974 to more than 84 healthy breeding pairs today, thanks in large part to eagle reintroduction efforts that became the model for recovery programs in many other states. In New York's Sullivan County, as many as 230 eagles now congregate on the Upper Delaware River and several neighboring reservoirs from December through February.

"It's a great opportunity for people from the New York City region to see bald eagles less than a two-hour drive from their front doors," says Lori Danuff McKean, founding director of The Eagle Institute, a local nonprofit. But, she adds, "it's both a blessing and a curse to be that close to a metropolitan area." While visiting urbanites enjoy a chance to experience large numbers of eagles in their natural habitat, the birds are sensitive to human disturbances that prompt them to take flight, wasting valuable energy.

NWF Priority

Expanding the Eagle's Range

Vermont is the only state in the contiguous United States that lacks nesting bald eagles. But last spring, NWF helped launch the Vermont Bald Eagle Restoration Initiative, which aims to reestablish a breeding eagle population in the Green Mountain State by releasing as many as 30 eagle fledglings in the Lake Champlain Valley over the next three years.

The first eight eaglets fledged last summer after being raised by NWF staff and volunteers at several "hack sites"--large, enclosed structures that hold the birds until they're ready to be released. In a few years these eagles might return to set up breeding areas. Follow the project's progress at www.cvps.com/eagles. For more about NWF's endangered species work, see our wildlife page.

The Eagle Institute's staff and volunteers man spotting scopes at several lookouts to help visitors locate the birds and to promote responsible "eagle etiquette." "Ninety-nine percent of the people are very respectful of the eagles and their habitat," says Danuff McKean. "That one percent doing something disruptive—trying to get closer to an eagle for a photograph, throwing something to make a bird fly, slamming car doors, honking horns—usually doesn't know they're causing harm. We tell them they're disturbing the birds, and most people are responsive."

As the coldest days of winter creep in, eagles in Sullivan County and elsewhere sometimes seek less-frozen hunting grounds even farther south. "The show starts just before Thanksgiving," says Christopher Letts, staff naturalist at the Hudson River Foundation in New York City. "First it's a trickle—one, two, three birds—then day by day, week by week, cold front by cold front, we see this wave of eagles rolling down on us."

Letts routinely drives a 25-mile circuit along the Hudson on winter mornings to look for eagles. Most days he counts as many as 40 birds at a half dozen stops on his route. One February morning in 2002, he hit the mother load: 74 eagles sitting on a long, skinny ice flow. "They'll ride that ice like it's a moving sidewalk," Letts says.

From a vantage point on Peekskill's China Pier, roughly 30 miles north of Manhattan, he watched in awe as that mass of eagles basked in the sun with outstretched wings, calling to one another and shuffling on the slippery ice. "Eagles move people the way nothing else does," Letts says. "And if you're looking for them, they're there."

Associate editor Rene Ebersole lives on the eastern shore of the eagle-rich Chesapeake Bay.

UPDATE: Thanks to years of successful conservation efforts, the bald eagle has recovered and was pulled from the endangered species list in 2007. To learn more, watch NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski in a video. 

Web Exclusive

Eagle Etiquette

When you head out to see eagles, keep in mind that human presence can stress the birds and cause them to waste precious energy that they need to survive. To avoid being disruptive, follow these basic tips:

Stay in or near your vehicle at roadside viewing areas

Move quickly and quietly to observation blinds, where you will be safely hidden from the birds' view

Avoid making loud noises, such as yelling, slamming car doors and honking horns.

Use binoculars or a spotting scope to view the birds from a comfortable distance.  Never attempt to make an eagle fly 

Source: The Eagle Institute

Web Exclusive

The Bald Eagle in America

Some wildlife experts estimate that when the first Europeans arrived on the continent, between 250,000 and 500,000 bald eagles--roughly 100,000 of them in the Lower 48--occupied the United States.

In 1782, the bald eagle was declared America's national symbol.

The first major decline in the bald eagle population is believed to have occurred in the late 1800s, when large numbers of waterfowl--a primary food source for eagles--were hunted for the feather trade. Eagles were also hunted.

The passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 prohibited the killing or selling of bald eagles. The act also increased public awareness of the eagle's plight.

In the aftermath of World War II, use of the pesticide DDT became common on American farms. By way of runoff, the pesticide washed into rivers, streams and lakes and collected in the fatty tissues of fish. Many eagles feeding contaminated fish became sterile. Others continued to reproduce, but their eggs were so weakened by the pesticide that they cracked under the weight of incubating adults.

By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles survived in the Lower 48.

In 1967, the secretary of the interior listed bald eagles south of the 40th parallel as endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.

The use of DDT was banned in the United States in 1972.

Following 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 species has never been listed as threatened or endangered in Alaska; populations there have always remained stable.)

1973-1995: The eagle's protected status provides the springboard for the eagle's accelerated recovery through captive breeding programs, reintroduction efforts, law enforcement and the protection of nest sites during the breeding season.

In 1995, the bald eagle's status was reduced from endangered to threatened. An estimated 4,712 nesting pairs occupied the Lower 48.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) first proposed removing the bald eagle from the endangered species list in 1999, the breeding population south of Alaska stood at 5,748 pairs.

As of this writing, the contiguous United States reportedly held more than 7,066 breeding pairs of bald eagles and the FWS was again preparing to propose the bald eagle for delisting, which some predict could happen within the year.

Web Exclusive

Eagle Watching in Winter

Each state in the continental United States now hosts bald eagles in winter. Some states have several sites where eagles congregate in large numbers. Others have only one or two locations where a few of the birds are spotted each year. Accurately listing all of the places where the nation's growing population of wintering eagles gather would be a difficult task. But here is one popular eagle hangout for every state:

Logan Martin Lake, (334) 242-3465 

Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, (907) 465-4563

Mormon Lake, (602) 556-7474

Beaver Lake, (501) 632-1210

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge, (530) 667-2231

Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, (710) 589-4021

Connecticut River Shepaug Eagle Observation Area, (203) 354-8840

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, (302) 653-6872

Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area: Prairie Lakes Unit, (407) 436-1818

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, (912) 496-7836

Lake Coeur d'Alene/Wolf Lodge Bay, (208) 765-1511

Rock Island Arsenal, (309) 782-1121

Monroe Lake, (812) 837-9546

Keokuk Riverfront Area and Lock and Dam 19, (800) 383-1219

Perry Reservoir, (785) 597-5144

Ballard Wildlife Management Area, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, 800-858-1549

White Kitchen Preserve, (504) 338-1040

Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, (207) 454-7161

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, (410) 228-2677

Quabbin Reservoir, (413) 323-7221

Erie Marsh, (517) 332-1741

Voyageurs National Park, (218) 283-9821

Grenada Lake, (662) 226-5911

Sandy Island Natural History Area, (314) 968-1105

Hauser Lake, (406) 475-3319

Kingsley Dam, (308) 284-2332

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, (702) 293-8906

New Hampshire 
Adam's Point Wildlife Management Area, (603) 271-2462

New Jersey 
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, (717) 296-6952

New Mexico 
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, (505) 835-1828

New York 
Mongaup Falls Reservoir, (845) 557-6162

North Carolina 
Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, (919) 362-0586

North Dakota 
Riverdale Wildlife Management Area, (701) 654-7475

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, (419) 898-0960

Kaw Lake, (877) 671-6985

Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, (530) 667-2231

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, (717) 733-1512

Rhode Island 
Scituate Reservoir

South Carolina 
ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, (843) 889-3084

South Dakota 
Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge, (605) 487-7603

Reelfoot Lake State Park, (800) 250-8817

Lake Fork Reservoir, (903) 878-2262

Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, (435) 545-2522

Harriman Station, (603) 448-2200

Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge, (703) 490-4979

Skagit River Bald Eagle Natural Area, (360) 445-4441

West Virginia 
South Branch of the Potomac River, Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, (304) 424-0736

Nelson Dewey State Park, (608) 725-5374

Buffalo Bill State Park, (307) 587-9227

Report your eagle sightings: Participate in NWF's Wildlife Watch program.

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