Nature of the Lake: The Majestic Bald Eagle

Lake Martin’s bald eagle population is on the rise. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Boone.

If you think you are seeing more American Bald Eagles around Lake Martin lately, be assured that your eyes are not playing tricks on you. Eagle sightings have become almost a daily occurrence in some areas, and the lake is now home to perhaps four nesting pairs – unless one or more mating pair is keeping up with two nests.

Most of the eagle sighting reports we’ve heard have been near Wind Creek State Park and Pace’s Peninsula on the east side of Lake Martin, but we also have sighted a nest at Dixie Island south of Chimney Rock, and we’ve been told of several sightings at Pitchford Hollow and near the Needle Eye in the lake’s northwest corner.

Wind Creek’s Park Manager Bruce Adams said bald eagles recently have been sighted at the park marina, and TPI’s newspaper editor, Mitch Sneed, said he has seen a nest in the back of the slough behind the park’s marina. This nest will be difficult to find once the trees are in full leaf, so go early in the season if you want to spot it.

Jimmy Lanier, trail builder extraordinaire and founder of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association (CRATA), said he often sees eagles as he walks the CRATA system.

“I would see them all the time, especially on the Deadening Trail,” Lanier said. “I have seen them land on those big dead trees on Chimney Rock Island. Once I sneaked up on one and surprised him. I got so close I could see his eyes. He looked back at me when he took off. I would see them once every month. Sometimes more than that.”

The Deadening Trail is just across the river from Chimney Rock Island and Dixie Island, where the eagle’s large nest made with branches is fairly easy to spot high in a pine tree.

To identify a bald eagle in flight, first check out the wing positions. Eagles have flat, steady wings; whereas, the flight patterns are different for birds that often are mistaken for eagles. Turkey vultures tend to rock unsteadily as they fly, and their wings are held at a 45-degree angle from the body. Osprey, on the other hand, fly with a bend in the wing.

Next, look for the white tail feathers and hood that are the most prominent field marks of the bald eagle. The rest of the bird’s body is covered in brown feathers, except for the yellow beak and legs.

Immature bald eagles have dark heads and tails, and their bodies may be mottled with white feathers. It takes about five years for an eagle to reach maturity and attain adult plumage, so if you see an immature eagle, it just might be one that was recently hatched right here on Lake Martin.

Nongame wildlife biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Carrie Threadgill said the sightings have become so common statewide that the department no longer keeps a record of them.

“We keep a database on the nests, so if anyone has a nest on their property or has sighted a nest, we’d like for them to report that, but not every day sightings. We would just have too many!” Threadgill explained.

If you see a nest, call Threadgill at 334-242-3864.

Daily sightings of bald eagles can be reported on the Bald Eagles of Alabama Facebook Page, a public group started last November by avid eagle watcher Jennifer Dial. Dial compiles the data from sightings and posts a report by county at the end of each month.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed bald eagles as endangered in the 1940s after they nearly disappeared, but under the protection of the Endangered Species Act and through concerted nesting programs in Alabama and elsewhere, the national bird now flourishes and was removed from the list in 2007.

“They are still protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, but in Alabama, they are doing great,” Threadgill said.