Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter Eagle Watching Tips

Winter is a challenging time for wildlife.  They have only three things on their minds:  watching out for predators, finding food and burning up as little energy as possible.
While some might describe them as lazy scavengers, I prefer to call them opportunists.  Their feeding strategy is all about conserving energy.  

They often rely on other birds – crows, ravens and vultures - to lead them to carrion, food that’s already dead.  They take sick and injured waterfowl.  They pirate food from other animals, a practice known as kleptoparasitism.  And if they’ve got the energy, they’ll actually catch live prey.
This time of year, eagles are most active at dawn (7-10am) and dusk (3-5pm).  Depending on location and the weather, you may see them flying to and from shared night roosts, and fishing or feeding in large numbers.  

When it’s snowing with sub-zero wind chill, eagles usually don’t leave their roosts.  

Know Your Eagles

Just about everyone knows what an adult Bald Eagle looks like - the huge brownish-black birds with white heads and tails.  But what are those other big black birds that hang out with them? 

They’re likely Bald Eagles too, the immatures.  They have dark beaks and dark feathers, mottled with white.  It takes about 4-5 years for Bald Eagles to get their distinctive white head and tail feathers.  There’s also a size difference.  Females are about 25% bigger than males.

From a distance, you might confuse them with other large soaring birds.  Take a look at the winter range and distinguishing characteristics of Golden Eagles, Osprey, Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.  None of them however, sounds anything like a Bald Eagle with its surprisingly wimpy call – a high, thin “chitter.” 

Planning Your Trip  

Here are some practical suggestions for a successful eagle-watching expedition: 
  1.       Dress for the weather – in layers (gloves, hats, scarves, boots and a windbreaker) 
  2.       Keep your distance.  Use binoculars and a spotting scope.  If you don’t have any, don’t be shy.   Most bird-watchers are happy let you take a look through  theirs. 
  3.       Stay out of sight (in your car or building). 
  4.       Be quiet.  Don’t yell, honk your horn, or slam your car door. 
  5.       Don’t bring your dog. 
  6.       Respect private and restricted property.  Don’t trespass. 
  7.       Bring a camera.  You’ll need a telephoto lens (400-600 mm) and tripod for great photos.  If you have a point and shoot digital camera, consider a digi-scope adapter. 
  8.      You’re likely to see ducks and other birds, so bring a bird ID book. 
  9.      Bring along a thermos of your favorite hot beverage. 
10.      Be careful driving!  Keep your eyes on the road and use designated pull-offs only.

Resist the temptation to get close, or try to make roosting eagles fly.  That’s harassment, and it’s a federal offense with stiff penalties.

It’s also illegal to collect feathers.  While they’re no longer considered endangered, Bald Eagles are still protected by federal laws - the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

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