Eagle Tours

by | Mar 1, 2012 | Features

The high-pitched call sounds out of proportion to the bird’s immense size. You would expect a bird with a wingspan approaching eight feet to possess a more intimidating voice. Such is not the case, but the cackling whinny of the bald eagle is nothing if not distinctive. No other bird in North America sounds anything like it.
The sound is crisp and wild, the voice of wilderness and freedom. Along with other attributes of the bald eagle, the call may have led our country’s founding fathers to name it the symbol of our young republic as the following excerpt from “The Eagle, Our National Emblem” implies:

“It is said the eagle was used as a national emblem because, at one of the first battles of the Revolution (which occurred early in the morning) the noise of the struggle awoke the sleeping eagles on the heights and they flew from their nests and circled about over the heads of the fighting men, all the while giving vent to their raucous cries. ‘They are shrieking for Freedom,’ said the patriots.
Thus the eagle, full of the boundless spirit of freedom, living above the valleys, strong and powerful in his might, has become the national emblem of a country that offers freedom in word and thought and an opportunity for a full and free expansion into the boundless space of the future. ”    ~Maude M. Grant

The bald eagle as a symbol has made a remarkable journey. Native only to the America’s, the bald eagle was a focal point of spirituality for many Native American tribes long before Europeans arrived in North America. Today, many tribes still feature eagle feathers in traditional ceremonies. On June 20, 1782, the bald eagle was chosen as the symbol for the newly formed United States of America.
The journey of the bald eagle as a species is no less remarkable. Before Columbus arrived, the estimated population of bald eagles was over 100,000 in the territory that would become the lower forty-eight states. By 1963, that population had dropped to only 417 known breeding pairs. Habitat loss, hunting, and insecticides such as DDT had wreaked havoc on the population.

In 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bald eagle as endangered under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act. In 1973, the bald eagle met qualifications for federal protection under the newly created Endangered Species Act. The passing of the Endangered Species Act opened the door for habitat conservation, a captive breeding program, and more in-field research. By all accounts, these actions saved the bald eagle. It also placed our nation’s symbol at the forefront of a program designed to conserve lesser known habitat and species as well.

No doubt, the bald eagle brought attention and resources to the cause of the Endangered Species Act that might have been lacking otherwise. The year 1995 saw the “down-listing” of the bald eagle from endangered to threatened in most states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate the population today at around 7,000 nesting pairs.

Bald eagles are raptors or birds of prey. One look at their powerful talons and strong hooked beaks leave little doubt that they are equipped to eat meat. Bald eagles sit at the top of the food chain. They prey on fish, waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion. They can weigh up to 14 pounds, but due to their long wingspan and hollow bones can soar with ease. Bald eagles have been observed soaring at 10,000 feet altitude and can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour.
Of course, the bald eagle isn’t really bald like its cousin the turkey vulture. Bald is an old word for white, the conspicuous white head and tail are the signs of a mature bird. Juvenile bald eagles resemble another cousin, the golden eagle.
Bald eagles are exceptionally long-lived birds with a maximum life span of 30 years. It’s believed that they mate for life. Their nests are some of the largest in the bird world and are found in the tops of the tallest trees available. The nesting pair is usually responsible for two eggs per year.
The River Valley area of Arkansas is home to a few year-round resident eagles and enjoys an influx of migrants during the fall and winter months. Eagles may be seen throughout the region, but the big birds tend to concentrate near waterways. In an effort to increase public awareness of the bald eagle, Lake Dardanelle State Park began offering “Eagle Tours” during the migratory period of November through February.
Park interpreter Sasha Bowles spoke about the eagle tours available to the public. “We started the tours, I think around 2003. We’ve had a lot of interest from the public since we started the program. The only limiting factor has been the size of our boat, in the past we had a much smaller boat. Pretty much every boat tour we’ve scheduled has filled up.”
“Right now we have a triple pontoon tour boat that will hold 20 people plus the operator of the boat. We offer two tours a week through the fall and winter months and the tour takes about an hour.”
As mentioned before, the Arkansas River Valley is home to resident eagles and Sasha said that one of those nesting pairs has made their year-round home not far from the park.
“Yes, we have a resident pair that nests across the river channel from Lake Dardanelle State Park. We view those eagles and the nest on the eagle tours, but we’re careful to not get too close and disturb them. If we see that the eagles are nervous about us watching them, we leave.”
Eagles aren’t the only wildlife that are observed during the tours. Sasha tells tour viewers to be on the lookout for many other species.

“Of course we have great blue herons, pelicans, and gulls. Many different types of waterfowl like mallard, goldeneye, scaup and lots of coots. Hawks and vultures are common. Sometimes we see wild turkey, deer, raccoons and mink. You just never know. The really great thing is that these tours are free, just be sure to call ahead and reserve your spot on the boat.”
It’s an amazing triumph of our nation’s conservation system, a species has been brought back from the brink of extinction. Public awareness was a large part of this triumph and the efforts of our local state park are an example of this. The future of the bald eagle as a species appears to be bright. However, continued conservation and awareness is needed to insure that the sight of a soaring eagle can be enjoyed for generations to come.

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