Soaring with the Eagles
By: Eugenia Jones 3/6/14
The morning of Kentucky’s target date for the statewide bald eagle survey arrives in McCreary County during a week when temperatures are consistently plunging below zero. Fortunately, for those spending the better part of their day searching for eagles, the day brings sunny to partly cloudy skies and temperatures climbing into the mid-fifties. Despite the improved temperatures, it is still chilly to be travelling in an uncovered crestliner boat for fifty miles on the Big South Fork and Cumberland Rivers.
A friend advises before the trip, “Wear lots of layers, and when you think you’re warm enough…add another layer!” Definitely sound advice for a novice eagle spotter like myself, who arrives, dressed in at least three layers of clothing and eager to see and count mid-winter bald eagles while cruising the waters of the Cumberland and the Big South Fork!
Game management foremen Bill Ridener and Earl Brown help launch a Fish and Wildlife boat at the muddy Noe’s Dock in Sawyer, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Biologist Mike Strunk and Beaver Creek Game Management Foreman George Corder begin their fifty mile journey from Sawyer to the Turkey Creek boat ramp, all the while keeping a close watch out for the federally protected birds of prey.
Just moments into the bird-watching adventure, the two spot their first bald eagle of the day perched on the limb of a tree rooted deeply in a bank of the Cumberland River in McCreary County. With distinctive white feathers covering its head, the majestic bird gazes proudly over the cold water as it waits and watches for the splash of a fish or other prey. It is a magnificent sight and an early indicator that the day is just right for spotting bald eagles along the Cumberland.
As the boat plows through chunks of ice, a second majestic bald eagle is quickly spotted. This eagle, with powerful wings lifting it into the air, glides quietly over the water in search of a new destination. The grace, beauty, and sheer strength of the magnificent bird during its solitary flight leaves little doubt as to why this mighty bird became our country’s national emblem in 1782.
Corder, who has surveyed bald eagles annually for approximately twenty years, can recall winter days of plowing through frozen ice for miles in order to spot the birds. For him, the 2014 annual survey is a mild journey in comparison to many voyages of the past.
There is no doubting the ability of Corder and Strunk to spot bald eagles as evidenced by their quick determination of a red-tailed hawk sighting as a false alarm. Between busily jotting down information needed for the statewide survey, and at the same time, dealing with a persistently sputtering boat, the two men tally up a total of eight eagles, including one juvenile. Half of the eagles are spotted in McCreary County. By the end of the two and one half hour journey from Sawyer to Turkey Creek, the day is deemed an outstanding success. The bald eagles have cooperated beautifully!
According to Strunk, the protection and subsequent recovery of the bald eagle population is truly one of the best conservation stories in the twentieth century. It is a story many McCreary Countians may not know about even though it has unfolded around us.
During the 1960’s, the bald eagle disappeared in Kentucky and elsewhere as a breeding bird. While there were many causes for the decline of bald eagles; it was in large part, the use of DDT and other pesticides that contributed to the loss. Not only was DDT harmful to adult birds since it accumulated in their bodies causing infertility, but it also affected bald eagle eggs, causing the shells to be too thin to reach successful incubation.
With the ban of DDT in the U. S. in 1972 and with bald eagle reintroduction efforts established in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Kentucky saw a steady increase in the number of nesting territories of bald eagles. Reports of bald eagles during breeding season have become quite widespread throughout the state. Man-made lakes and reservoirs throughout the state, as well as large rivers and creeks, now provide additional nesting opportunities. Although they continue to be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, Kentucky’s bald eagles were officially delisted as an endangered species in 2007. The birds continue to be monitored as part of a post-delisting plan.
Eagles are officially monitored twice a year in Kentucky. During January, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), along with the U. S. Forest Service and other state and federal agencies and volunteers, survey as many as twenty routes for migrating/wintering bald eagles. Later, in March or April of each year, a second survey is conducted via helicopter with individuals looking for eagle nests in an effort to establish the status of non-migratory birds and breeding territories.
Kentucky’s bald eagles typically begin building and repairing their nests as early as October and lay eggs from January through March. The eaglets usually leave the nest from April through July.
The number of known Kentucky bald eagle nesting territories has grown from one in 1986 to one hundred and twenty-three in 2013.
It is a gradual five year process before the distinctive white head/tail and brown body of the adult bald eagle fully emerges. American bald eagles usually weigh from ten to fourteen pounds with the female typically being slightly larger than the male. Their wing spans can range from six to seven and one half feet. The powerful birds are able to lift about four pounds and survive mostly on a diet of fish. Bald eagles will also prey on small mammals, snakes, other birds, and feed on the carcasses of dead animals.
Bald eagles form monogamous pairings, and unless unable to reproduce as a couple, typically remain together until one of the pair dies. They build their nests in tree forks high off of the ground or in cliff lines, and they may add to and repair the same nest year after year. The nests of bald eagles are the largest in North America and can reach as much as nine feet in diameter and weigh hundreds of pounds. The male and female both take turns sitting on their eggs until hatched.
While sightings of bald eagles in McCreary County are becoming more common, one thing stays the same. Each sighting of a majestic bald eagle soaring through the sky or perching in a tree, as it stands guard over its river domain, never fails to invoke amazement, admiration, and respect for the majestic bird and the exciting world of nature.
Photos by Greg Bird
March came in like the proverbial lion early Monday morning as McCreary County was blanketed with a coat of ice. Though spared the worst of the damage from the weather event, nearly 200 people were without power for some of the day as the ice snapped tree limbs and disrupted power. With temperatures hovering at below-freezing levels, the ice lasted through Wednesday, prompting school closings for the first three days of the week.