By Winslow Umberger
The eagle has landed! Actually many bald eagles have. Our national emblem has discovered, like many of us, that our mountains are a great place to raise a family. Golden eagles, the other eagle species found in the US, prefer more northern and western climes for rearing their chicks, but some do enjoy wintering here in the Southeast. Both were once considered rare visitors to the mountains of NC, but the chances of seeing these majestic birds increase each year.
When asked why we are seeing more now, naturalist and educator Carlton Burke of Carolina Mountain Naturalists, says, “Their numbers increased once pesticides like DDT were heavily restricted in 1972, and other conservation methods were introduced. In 2007, bald eagles were taken off the endangered species list, but they still enjoy special federal protections.” The uptick in numbers in WNC can also be partly attributed to a bald eagle reintroduction project begun by North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologists back in 1982.
“For many years, there were no documented bald eagles’ nests in the mountains,” says Burke. “When an eagle was spotted, it was likely just migrating through. Now, bald eagles are starting to be routinely seen, and nests are being verified around the mountain area. There has been a nesting pair in Transylvania County near Brevard for at least a couple of years now, and in the past few years, a bonded pair has raised eaglets in a tall white pine at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County.”
In December, one would have seen them bringing large sticks and twigs to construct a platform nest in a tall tree. Over time, an eagle’s nest can be six to eight feet across and ten feet deep or more, and can weigh more than a ton. In January, the female seen at Lake Junaluska would have been sitting on a nest of two to three eggs while the male hunted. “Around mid-April, their baby eaglets should be close to fledging,” Burke says. “Bald eagles must nest very early as it takes months for the young to learn to fly and hunt. They won’t be self-sufficient until summer and may be seen food-begging even when they’re the size of an adult.”
Because it takes four to five years to gain mature plumage and acquire the white-feathered “bald” head (after the Old English piebald, meaning “white-headed”), many mistake bald eagles for golden eagles.
Bald eagles are actually sea eagles and nest near water. While fish are their main diet, they will eat other prey when necessary and scavenge as well. They have been known to feed on dead deer not recovered by hunters or even on gut piles left over from a field-dressed deer, sometimes ingesting particles of lead from the bullet fragments. Fish can also pose health risks as some may contain lead sinkers used by fishermen. Ingesting lead has deadly consequences if not treated. The raptor can sometimes be helped if caught early and cared for by a wildlife rehabilitator, but it takes specialized care and time. “If you see a bird that is unable to fly but has no apparent injuries, it may be lead poisoned and should be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator to be treated,” says Burke.
No doubt you have seen pictures and videos of these remarkable raptors, but until you see one, weighing up to 14 pounds with a 7’ wingspan, soaring overhead, or peer into one’s decidedly defiant eyes, you will never fully appreciate the majesty of these monarchs of the sky.
Welcome to our halls, O mountain king!
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit located in Candler whose mission is to provide care for injured and orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide conservation education. To support its mission, visit AppalachianWild.org. Listen every Saturday on WTZQ (95.3FM) at 7 a.m. to “Nature News” with Carlton Burke and Dan Lazar.