Local Features
3:54 am
Wed January 21, 2009

Eagle Watch

Hardin, KY – The eagle has long been a symbol of power and royalty everywhere from ancient Babylon and Egypt to many European countries. Carrie Pond recently attended an Eagle Watch tour at Kenlake State Resort Park to learn more about our national bird.

I wanted to mention that we will be seeing some bald eagles if all goes well.

Both the American Bald and Golden Eagles inhabit the lakes and their surrounding area, but our national bird is the more flashy and well-known of the two species. Eager tour goers spent the afternoon staring out the yacht's windows in hopes of spotting the tell-tale white head of a mature bald eagle. Naturalist at Lake Barkley State Resort Park Jenny Howard says the bird's well-known white head plumage only comes in upon entering maturity, and many people don't immediately recognize the mottled-colored juveniles as the same species. During the tour, Howard spoke of another common misconception.

"This majestic bird, which so often people think is going to have a cry that is going to send chills down your spine, really sounds like this."

The American Bald Eagle is an able hunter, and can see potential prey from over a mile away. Howard says here in western Kentucky, the eagle's preferred meals are fish and small waterfowl like the American Coot. After spotting its lunch, the bird can dive up to 150 miles per hour to snatch its prey in its surprisingly strong talons.

"If I was a very strong human, I might be able to grip 100 lbs per sq in. The bald eagle is said to grip 1,000 lbs per square inch. They say that is the equivalent of being able to crush a baseball in your bare hand."

Once the eagle has its talons around the unsuspecting fish they lock into place, preventing the bird from releasing the prey until it lands on a hard surface. If the eagle tries to land a fish that's too heavy, it could be dragged underwater then drown, but the bird's large size and strength makes this a rare occurrence. The creature will use its size to its advantage- snatching meals straight from other birds of prey's talons.

This, and an estimated half million population led many from colonial times to consider eagles a nuisance. That changed in the mid-twentieth century. The eagle population declined so drastically that legislators were forced to pass the Eagle Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill, harm or disturb the birds. Jenny Howard says though there were many causes of the eagle's gradual decimation, the use of the pesticide DDT was one of the largest contributors.

"Scientists found that DDT was reducing the calcium that the eagles were able to produce and therefore it made their eggs really thin and they were crushed under the weight of the adult birds."

After that, conservationists across the country began preservation efforts. In the Land between the Lakes area, naturalists began the hacking program, bringing young birds from areas with strong eagle populations like the Pacific Northwest and Alaska to western Kentucky. Scientists raised the young birds using eagle puppets to ensure they would not become accustomed to humans.

"So they thought they were being raised by adult eagles, and that population has continued- as eagles do- to return to where they were raised as young."

Thanks to the hacking program, LBL's eagle population has soared, and now tourists can see many of the birds throughout the year. State parks offer eagle tours during the best time to view the birds-throughout January and February. Howard says when they started eagle tours started 40 years ago, folks were lucky to spot one or two of the birds. Now she says people can see anywhere from 10 to 50 under the right conditions. Today is cloudy and rainy, so we only spot eight. LBL Public Affairs officer Katherine Harper says you never know what kind of day you'll have on the lake.

"There's no guarantee. So, read up, be patient and know what it is you're looking for. And then get with someone who knows what they're doing and go out and really enjoy being out of doors."

Harper says the most requested activities at LBL are wildlife viewing opportunities like the eagle tours. Jenny Howard sees the appeal- she says giving tours is her favorite part of the job. Howard, sporting her bald eagle earrings, says the once-threatened bird is perfect for getting people more interested in conservation efforts.

"It's a very charismatic bird, a very easy bird to fall in love with. But it also offers a chance for us to see that our actions certainly have consequences that we need to pay attention to."

She says thanks to all of LBL's wildlife viewing tours, people are more aware of all the natural resources the area offers. This, she hopes, will make them more likely to protect them.

LBL officials offer eagle watching tours by boat and van at Kentucky Dam Village, Kenlake and Lake Barkley state resort parks. Click here to access the events calendar.