For the past twenty-five years, it seems that the number-one form of mid-winter birding in Alabama for most observers has been Bald Eagle-watching. It began with the discovery of a substantial winter roost of the birds at Lake Guntersville and soon spread from there. Before long, several of the state parks were hosting eagle-themed weekends, and crowds thronged to see the national bird. As the species’ population rebounded, more and more of Bald Eagles wintered in Alabama. In the ’90’s, a breeding population of Bald eagles was established. The state proved to be fertile ground for the birds, and the number of nesting pairs of Bald Eagles has increased geometrically across the state in recent years, to the point that, although they remain most common in the dead of winter, Bald eagles may be seen any day of the year in any part of the state.
So have we become “bored” with Bald Eagles? I certainly hope not. The birds are always magnificent to see, and they are especially majestic in flight. But perhaps we don’t look at individual birds quite as intently now that they are more numerous, more widespread, and present throughout the year.
A worthwhile suggestion, though: pay close attention to those large, dark soaring birds. They may not ALL be Bald eagles. This has been the best year in memory for wintering Golden Eagles, with several of the birds seen in different parts of the state in the past month. Currently, there are individual Golden Eagles at Eufaula NWR in Barbour County, at the “hawk farm” near Guntersville Dam off US 431 in Marshall County (14+ miles west of Guntersville on 431, and 2.3 miles south on Guntersville Dam Rd., where the bird has been seen soaring over the road itself and over the open fields to the west), and another in the Shoal Creek division of the Talladega National Forest.
To tell the eagle species apart, note that Bald Eagles soar on long, narrow, “plank-like” wings. Golden Eagles’ wings are broad and have a curve on the trailing edge. Bald Eagles have massive yellow bills and give the overall impression of a huge head and neck with a relatively short tail. Golden Eagles have smaller, darker bills; the sense is one of a small head-and-neck projection with a very long tail. Young Bald Eagles have widespread and random bits and flecks of white on the body and wings. Young Golden Eagles have very localized white — only at the base of the tail and at the “wrist” on the wings. And adult Bald Eagle should be unmistakeable, with its gleaming white head and tail, while the adult Golden Eagle is almost equally distinctive for its huge size and golden nape.
While Bald Eagles are primarily fish-eaters, only occasionally taking waterfowl, and even more seldom, terrestrial prey; Golden Eagles who winter in the east subsist primarily on deer carcasses — especially road-killed deer. So Bald Eagles are mostly found near large bodies or water, and Golden Eagles should be expected where there is open country (for soaring) with large deer populations and county roads or “blue highways” nearby.
Keep your eyes peeled for Golden Eagles this winter — I have a feeling there may be additional birds around that have not yet been seen or reported.