If you went to school a generation or two ago, you very likely heard your teacher say something like this:
“Here’s a picture of a bald eagle, boys and girls. Isn’t it beautiful? This is our national bird, and it’s very sad that you probably will never see one flying overhead. There are hardly any left.”
If your teacher was into statistics, she or he might have mentioned that by 1963, hunting, habitat loss and widespread use of the pesticide DDT had brought the population down to only 417 known breeding pairs in the lower 48 states.
Fortunately, those numbers have improved to 9,789 breeding pairs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the national bird is no longer on the endangered list. Yet spotting one still can seem like an almost mystical event, that rare moment when you look up at a soaring majestic creature, see those white head and tail feathers and exclaim, “This one’s not a hawk. It’s not a vulture.”
If you’d like to see one (or more) eagles for yourself, you might consider a trip to Promised Land State Park in Pike County, where a nest, complete with eaglets that hatched in early April, can be seen from a viewing platform. The chicks are about 18 inches tall now, environmental-education specialist Carissa Longo estimated, and still being fed by their parents.
Another option is a visit to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Berks County, where senior biologist Laurie Goodrich said the best place to spot bald eagles may be the North Lookout, a 1-mile walk from the visitors center.
Close to home, you will find bald and golden eagles from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center at the Wild Birds Unlimited Store in Dallas at 1 p.m. Saturday. The birds have been injured and can’t survive in the wild, manager Carol Sorber said, explaining similar events at the store have been “standing room only.”
Also on Saturday, Longo will lead an eagle-viewing event from noon to 1 p.m. at Promised Land’s wildlife observation platform, which is accessible from Bear Wallow Road, the same road that leads to Bear Wallow Boat Launch.
You can bring your own binoculars or borrow a pair from the park, said Longo, who knows a lot about eagles and their young.
This year’s chicks hatched about April 4 from eggs that were laid about Feb. 22, she said. That was earlier than usual because of the mild winter. The parents will most likely forage to feed their young until mid-June, after which the eaglets will fledge, or leave the nest and learn to find food for themselves.
“They’re getting big now,” Longo said. “They’re about a foot and a half tall. They grow really fast.”
The eagle nest is in a maple tree in a protected area, she said, explaining humans are forbidden to come within 330 feet.
Every year since 2010 the Promised Land pair of eagles has produced at least one eaglet, Longo said. “It means they’re healthy and getting good nutrition.”
At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, meanwhile, the seasonal bird count showed earlier this week that 40 bald eagles had been spotted. Compare that with 453 broad-winged hawks, 150 red-tailed hawks, 135 sharp-shinned hawks and 97 black vultures, and they do seem a bit of a rare bird.
But they can be spotted in Northern Pennsylvania all year, said Goodrich, the biologist.
Some of them will migrate south in the fall, she said, but not all will do that. “As long as they have availability of open water for hunting, they’ll stay,” she said. If it was cold enough for all the lakes and rivers to freeze over, they’d probably head south “to the Carolinas or the Chesapeake Bay region.”
While the spring migration season is coming to a close on June 1, Goodrich said, “Eagles are one of those birds we can see any month of the year, especially on windy days. They use the updraft.”
If you’re confused about whether a bird in flight is an eagle or a vulture, Longo said, watch how it moves.
“A turkey vulture or black vulture will look like it’s dizzy. It will tilt back and forth, but the eagle will always be straight, with its wings very straight and flat.”
Spotting one will make you feel special, Goodrich said.
“They’re magnificent to watch in flight. They’re large and regal,” she said. “I think everybody just enjoys that opportunity.”