Bald Eagles

Bald Eagle 
Bald Eagle photo by Dee Kuder

Spring migration brings numerous Bald Eagles into the area. Many are migrating to their northern breeding grounds while others are searching for suitable nesting habitat around here. The Bald Eagles that have nested here in the past are busy defending their territory.

Some Bald Eagles stay around the northland year round and now they can be seen in every month of the year. That wasn’t the case up until about 10 years ago. With the increasing number of Eagles, some birds will stick around through the winter if they can find enough food. And if they can’t find food, they do have wings and they don’t have to fly too far to find warmer temperatures and open water!

Another Eagle species that is a possibility to see, during migration in Minnesota, is the Golden Eagle. Their numbers also seem to be increasing. There is a population of Golden Eagles that winter in southeastern Minnesota along the Mississippi River. That area has become quite the wintering grounds for both species of Eagle. At the annual spring count held this past February, 70 Golden Eagles and 390 Bald Eagles were counted along the Mississippi River Valley in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

juvenile Bald Eagle
immature Bald Eagle by Dee Kuder 

Bald Eagles do not get their distinctive adult plumage until they are at least 3 years old. The above bird is probably a first or second year Bald Eagle. Notice the large dark bill.

Bald Eagles
Adult and 3rd year Bald Eagles by Dee Kuder

Immature Bald Eagles go through quite a change as they acquire their adult plumage. This Bald Eagle is probably a 3rd or 4th year bird. They acquire a dark eyestripe before molting into their adult plumage. This bird is starting to get the yellow bill of an adult bird.

Juvenile Bald Eagles can sometimes be mistaken for Golden Eagles. Goldens have a golden color to the back of their neck which can be easily seen when they are perched. But when they are flying overhead, the golden won’t be visible. The adults just look like very big black birds as they soar overhead. Golden Eagles are pretty much the same size as a Bald Eagle.

Juvenile Goldens are easier to identify. They will have a distinct white patch on the outer front part of the wing and their tail will be white with a wide dark band on the end. They’ll also have feathering on their legs that extends to the toes. The lower part of the shank is bare in the Bald Eagle.

Juvenile Bald Eagles will also be a brown color, but usually their color is much more mottled. One way to tell the difference is if the bird has white armpits. If that is the case then it is an immature Bald Eagle. I have yet to count a Golden Eagle on my Minnesota life list. I think that I may have seen a pair of adult Goldens migrating over Crane Lake late in the fall a few years ago, but it wasn’t a difinitive i.d., so I have not counted it.

The Eagle has made an incredible comeback. It wasn’t too long ago that an Eagle was a rare sight. Here is an excerpt from an old bird book that was written in the 30’s: “Once upon a time” the Bald Eagle was common enough in the northern US so that its immense aerie was to be seen high up in a tall tree beside most of the larger bodies of water and principal streams. As late as seventy-five years ago the sight of one of these great white-headed, white-tailed birds flying over high in the air in spring and fall-for they retreated to the south when the waters froze over-was a not infrequent sight. But today the aeries are few in number and the big birds are objects of special interest. (Bird Portraits in Color with text written by Thomas Sadler Roberts)

Now the Bald Eagle’s comeback has been phenomenal and it has even been removed from the endangered species list. The pesticide DDT, which was banned in the U.S. in 1972, has been blamed for the almost demise of the Eagle and many other bird species as well. Back in the 70’s and 80’s Voyageurs National Park made special efforts to manage and protect Eagle habitat in the Park and thanks to the efforts of park biologist Lee Grim, Bald Eagles are once again thriving in the area. 

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