When you see a bald eagle soaring overhead, floating on the air like it is weightless, you can see why it is a symbol of our nation. The bald eagle is an impressive bird, looking strong and in charge of everything in its world. The dark brown body and stark white head contrast vividly against the sky that holds it.
I will never forget the first time I saw a bald eagle. I was fishing at Lake Oconee and followed it for about 15 minutes as it soared over Double Branches. Several other boats stopped and also idled along, watching it as it hunted for fish in the lake.
While I was growing up there were no bald eagles in the east Georgia area around McDuffie County. I spotted a few like the one at Oconee while fishing area lakes in the late 1980s and they have gotten more numerous since then.
During the 1970s there were no active bald eagle nests in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. They have made a gradual comeback since 1979 when the DNR started “hacking” or releasing young captive birds on the coastal islands of Georgia. They have spread to the extent that last year nests were found in 35 different counties in the state.
During the 2003/04 nesting season the DNR found a total of 84 occupied eagle territories across Georgia and there were 67 successful nests in them. Those nests produced a total of 104 young eagles. That is an increase of 4 successful nests and 7 more young eagles than the year before.
Bald eagles are some of our biggest birds, reaching a huge size. They can be 40 inches tall and have a wingspread of 7.5 feet. They probably mate for life and produce only one or two young each year.
Eagle nests are amazing. They are usually built in tall dead trees on or near the water and eagles will use them year after year. Some eagle nests are huge, getting up to 5 feet wide, 12 feet tall and weigh up to 1000 pounds. They are made out of sticks and really stand out in a tree out on the lake.
Although eagles will eat waterfowl and carrion, their main food is fish they catch out of lakes, rivers and the ocean. It is amazing to watch one soar high about the water and suddenly swoop down with talons outstretched, plucking a fish out of the surface of the water. It is surprising how big a fish the eagle can grab and fly away with, heading to a perch to eat it at its leisure.
The most eagles I have ever seen at one time as on a trip to Pamlico Sound on the coast of North Carolina. We went into a big swampy area off a river and there were a lot of dead trees standing in it. Almost every tree had a eagle nest in it. There were probably 20 nests with pairs of eagles flying around, catching fish and taking them to their young.
Ospreys are often mistaken for eagles. They live in the same areas, build similar nests and fish for food. Ospreys are smaller than eagles and are lighter in color. They breasts are speckle white and brown, unlike the dark brown breast of eagles. They are more common that eagles and you are more likely to see them on area lakes. If you are looking at a big bird from below it, and it has a light colored breast, it is an osprey, not an eagle.
Eagles face a new threat. Last year several dead eagles were found around Clark’s Hill lake and it was determined they died from Avian Vacuolar Myelinopathy(AVM), a disease that attacks the nervous system of eagles and coots. Coots that are infected are sometimes eaten by eagles and they seem to get the disease from them. Not much is known about AVM and there is nothing that can be done about it at this time.
Eagles were sacred birds to Native Americans and there are a lot of myths and tall tales about eagles from our history. I hope their populations continue to grow and everyone has a chance to stand in awe as a bald eagle soars by.