Few species invokes as much wonder and pride as the bald eagle. It’s the symbol of America, but seeing the majestic bird in person can create a connection on an entirely new level.
For Rocky Baker, who lives near Athens, the connection hit home about seven years ago. The 56-year-old grew up hunting and fishing, but it was a pair of eagles near the Elk River in north Alabama that brought the nation’s symbol to life for him.
“I grew up knowing it was the nation’s symbol, but until seeing one in person I’d only seen them on television or in books,” Baker said. “When you see a bald eagle flying in the wild, it helps you connect more to what it means to be an American.”
Experiencing the site of the previously endangered bird in the wild also sparked Baker’s curiosity. He began attending Eagle Awareness weekends at Lake Guntersville State Park. The annual event held January through February includes field trips and programs to showcase the park’s most famous residents.
Guntersville State Park Naturalist Patti Donnellan says one of the most exciting aspects of the Eagle Awareness weekends is seeing eagles in their natural habitat as they soar above the fishing center or care for their eaglets in the nest at the dam.
“My absolute favorite moment is hearing the crowd’s collective gasp when they see an eaglet peek its head out of the nest,” Donnellan said. “I see them nearly every day here at the park, which is a tremendous victory for both us and the eagles.”
Seeing an eagle in Alabama was once a rare event, but thanks to efforts by state and federal agencies along with other conservation groups, the bald eagle made a comeback.
In the 1950s and 60s, the bald eagle population plummeted, and wintering birds in Alabama became rare. In the early 1980s, a recovery project to restore Alabama’s nesting eagles was initiated by the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Fisheries (WFF) Nongame Wildlife Program.
Keith Hudson, a wildlife biologist with the WFF, said most eagles seen in Alabama during winter are migratory, but that is changing as a larger percentage are nesting here each year. They are doing so well that bald eagles were taken off the endangered species list.
Tornadoes in 2011 setback recovery efforts for bald eagles. The storms destroyed at least five bald eagle nests, which can be up to 10 feet across and weigh 2,000 pounds. Thousands of trees were destroyed in the Lake Guntersville area along with the eagle’s natural habitat.
But officials remain optimistic.
“We have several pairs of eagles that can be seen in the park throughout the year, but the pair at the Guntersville Dam is the most easily viewed,” Donnellan said. “They successfully raised three eaglets this year, all of which took their first flights a few weeks ago. They are such a popular attraction, they even have their own Facebook page.”
For more information about bald eagles and the Eagle Awareness weekends at Lake Guntersville State Park, visit OutdoorAlabama.com.
Photos by Billy Pope, Outdoor Alabama.