How to Find Bald Eagles

WWWWH Series: Bald Eagles

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Who (identification)

Large Raptor     Very Long Wings     Massive Hooked Bill

  • Adult:      White Head     Brown Body     Brown Wings     White Tail     Yellow Bill     Yellow Legs      Note female Bald Eagles are larger than male Bald Eagles
  • Juvenile (1 to 4 years old):     Dark Gray/Brown Head (begins to turn white with dark eye strip in Year 3)     Dark Gray/Brown Body (with white molting around chest in Year 2)     Dark Gray/Brown Wings (with white molting on underside)   Dark Brown Tail (with white molting)     Black Bill (will begin to yellow in Year 2)     Yellow Legs
  • Call: High-Pitched whistles and squeals

What (behavior)

Like most wild animals the majority of a Bald Eagle’s life (average lifespan is approximately 20 years) is devoted to obtaining food and breeding.

  • Food – divided into two categories: Hunting and Scavenging
    • Hunting: Fish are preferred but will also hunt mammals like squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, in addition to amphibians, reptiles, and other birds (primarily waterfowl). Bald Eagles often hunt solitarily, though in winter, multiple Bald Eagles can be observed at large feeding sights (usually unfrozen, large bodies of water).
    • Scavenging: Infamous for stealing food (often fish) in the possession of other animals – Osprey’s are a common victim of such theft. Bald Eagle will also rummage through garbage and eat carrion (flesh of an already dead animal)
  • Breeding
    • Courtship: Male and female fly to great height together, lock talons, freefall back towards earth while remaining locked together, then release at last possible moment before crashing. Note that Bald Eagle pairs mate for life (or at least until one of them dies).
    • Nesting: Female builds nest, male helps with materials. Can take months to build. Average clutch size is 2 eggs, incubation takes around 35 days, fledging occurs around two months after hatching. One brood a year, though if successful breeding often occurs at same site year after year. Bald Eagles defend breeding territory from other eagles and potential predators.

Where (range, habitat, feeding sites)

                                                                                                                                                                Bald Eagle Habitat

                                                                                                                                                                Bald Eagle Habitat

  • Range: Bald Eagles are found all over North America – some are residents (live in same area throughout the year) some are migratory (breed in north, fly south for winter).
    • Residents: Includes Bald Eagles who live in pacific northwest, and along both west and east coasts.
    • Migratory: Includes Bald Eagles who breed in interior northern regions (mainly Canada) and fly south in winter to seek out open water when northern rivers and lakes freeze over.
  • Habitat: Forested areas near large bodies of waters, that are rich in fish and other food sources, such as rivers, lakes, canals, mangroves, swamps, and the ocean.
    • Within their habitat Bald Eagles are most often observed either soaring very high in the sky (look for large raptor shape – dark body and wings, white head, and white tail) or perched in a tree (usually the tallest in the immediate area) or a snag (which is a dead, leafless tree).
    • Nesting Location: often in close proximity to large body of water, away from human contact. In the north nests are often placed in large conifer trees, in other areas deciduous trees, cliff sides, and even the ground is used.
  • Feeding Sites: Besides large natural bodies of water Bald Eagle can be found hunting and scavenging for food (especially in winter) in man-made areas like dams, reservoirs, fish processing plants, and garbage dumps. Over migration and in winter time Bald Eagle may also be seen near open habitat – fields, prairies, meadows – preying on mammals.
  • Note that some of the best sites for viewing Bald Eagles are state parks and conservation areas on or near large bodies of water. Some of the best locations for viewing Bald Eagles are in Florida, Alaska, and Minnesota. In Canada the best spot is said to be in British Columbia.

When (time of year, migration, time of day)

  • Winter: Bald Eagles are most often sighted in winter because their range expands due to migration. Winter migration usually begins in late fall but can depend on when lakes/rivers begin to freeze. In winter Bald Eagles often congregate at feeding and roosting locations. Bald Eagles tend to take their time during winter migration and may stop for extended periods before reaching their permenantnter site.
  • Spring/Summer/Early Fall: Bald Eagles spotted at this time of year are likely to be preoccupied with breeding activities – such as nest construction, incubation, fledging, and other tasks related to raising their young. Spotting an active nest offers the opportunity for consistent viewing.
  • Time of Day: Bald Eagles tend to be most visible in the early morning – sunrise to about 10 a.m. In the afternoon they are more likely to be soaring (which can make viewing more difficult). There may be also be an uptick in activity in the late afternoon (4 to 5 p.m.) as Bald Eagles attempt to get food while there is still light. For photographers this is good news because photographs usually come out best when the light is softest, which is often in the morning or afternoon.

How to find Bald Eagles (summary)

  • Adult Bald Eagles are large raptors, look for a dark brown body, white head, and white tail.
  • Juvenile Bald Eagles are dark brown overall with varying degrees of white molting – the molting is mostly concentrated in the wing and tail areas
  • Winter time offers the best chance for observation since many Bald Eagles migrate southward as northern lakes and rivers freeze over.
  • In winter look for Bald Eagles hunting (mainly for fish but also for mammals) and scavenging (stealing fish from other animals, eating carrion and garbage) near large bodies of un-frozen water – such as: lakes, rivers, and coastline. In addition, check man-made areas too – such as: dams/reservoirs, and garbage dumps.
  • Bald Eagles observed in the spring and summer months are most likely to be engaged in breeding activities – such as nest construction, incubation, fledging, and other tasks related to raising their young. Nests are most commonly placed in a very tall tree and located in forested areas near a large body of water.
  • Bald Eagles tend to be most visible in the early morning and late afternoon.
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Good Luck !

Exploring Birds