Arkansas Living — January 2012
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It’s Eagle-Watching Time
Sheila Yount

The idea of heading out on a boat at an Arkansas lake on a frigid January or February morning might seem unthinkable to many, but for those in search of wintering bald eagles, it’s simply a part of the quest.

Veterans of the eagle-watching lake cruises offered at Arkansas’ state parks will tell you that all it takes is to bundle up well, especially if temperatures are in the 20s and 30s, a not uncommon occurrence this time of year. With a heavy jacket, warm caps and gloves, and maybe even thermal underwear, you’ll do just fine. And the reward – the sight of a majestic bald eagle in its natural habitat – makes the effort worthwhile.

This year, as they’ve done for more than two decades, interpreters at Arkansas’ state parks will host eagle-watching events, says Jay Miller, administrator for program services for Arkansas State Parks. The events are more popular than ever, he says. And that’s because the guided eagle watch activities are more widespread and occur more often than in the past.

“Just about every week (during the winter), we take people out to see eagles,” Miller says. “You don’t need to just look for a special event.”

It’s easy to offer the weekly tours because Arkansas is a mecca for bald eagles in the winter. That’s because of the state’s generally mild winters and numerous lakes and rivers. Fish make up a large portion of bald eagles’ diet, so when the lakes and rivers in the northern climes begin to freeze over, they head south with Arkansas as a Prime destination. In fact, Arkansas ranks in the top 10 states for wintering bald eagles.

Arkansas’ state parks began offering the eagle awareness programs at a time when the bird was an endangered species as a way to help protect and restore it. In 1963, there were only about 417 pairs of bald eagles in the nation. Such efforts helped pay off, and in 1995, the bald eagle’s status was changed from endangered to threatened. By 2007, the nation’s national symbol had rebounded with about 11,040 pairs recorded. That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the threatened list. It is still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The best time to view bald eagles in Arkansas is from December through February. Among the most popular events and tours include:

> Eagle Lake Cruises at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, weekends in January and February: Park interpreters will lead cruises on Lake Maumelle to see wintering bald eagles. Check with park for dates. 501-868-5806; www.ArkansasStateParks.com/ PinnacleMountain.

> Eagle Awareness Weekend at Bull Shoals-White River State Park on Jan. 6-7: This weekend of events includes lake and river tours to see bald eagles and other birds, such as ospreys, waterfowl, herons, loons and owls, guided bird walks, as well as guest speakers, including a local falconer and bird rehabilitators. Staff from the Little Rock Zoo will showcase a live Mature bald eagle and other birds of prey. The park sponsors this program along with the Bull Shoals Theater for the Arts, the United States Corps of Engineers, Gaston’s White River Resort, Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock and other area merchants. 870-445-3629; www.ArkansasStateParks.com/ BullShoalsWhiteRiver.

> Eagle Awareness Weekend at Petit Jean State Park in Morrilton, Jan. 14-15: Arkansas’ first state park pays homage to the bald eagle with two days of programs including field trips to nearby Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge to look for wintering eagles and other birds. 501- 727-5441; www.PetitJeanStatePark.com.

> Bald Eagle Bonanza at Lake Catherine State Park near Hot Springs, Jan. 20-22: Activities include lake tours, guided bird walks, guest speakers and live bird demonstrations. 501-844-4176; www.ArkansasStateParks.com/LakeCatherine.

> Eagles Et Cetera at DeGray Lake Resort State Park at Bismarck on Jan. 27-28: This is the granddaddy of all eagle programs in the state parks, and the 2012 version will mark the 33rd year for the program. Activities include eaglewatching lake tours, guided bird walks, owl prowls, live bird demonstrations, slide presentations, games and more. Staff and docents from the Little Rock Zoo will present programs to area schools during the week and give live raptor demonstrations And performances on Friday and Saturday. Lodging and camping are available. Call 1-800-737-8355 beginning Jan. 23, 2012, for ticket prices and reservations for eaglewatching lake tours. Please dress for the weather for outdoor activities. 501-865-5810; www.DeGray.com.

> Eagle Watch Weekend at Lake Ouachita State Park at Mountain Pine on Feb. 25-26: Lake tours will be offered along other programs and activities in the park. Contact the park for a schedule. 501-767-9366; www.ArkansasStateParks.com/ LakeOuachita.

Besides the above events, Miller says other prime eaglewatching opportunities are available at: Moro Bay State Park on the banks of the Ouachita River where five new cabins have recently opened; Lake Chicot State Park in southeast Arkansas, a birding hot spot with 17 fully furnished cabins; Millwood State Park in southwest Arkansas, another prime area for birding; Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area along Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas; Cane Creek State Park at Star City in southeast Arkansas, which is known for its wildlife kayak tours; and at the Mississippi River State Park along the St. Francis River and Bear Creek Lake.

A FEW FACTS ABOUT Bald Eagles

> It is estimated that there were half a million bald eagles in North America before European settlers arrived. The bald eagle is the only eagle unique to North America.

> The bald eagle was named at a time when “bald” meant “white.”

> The bald eagle was selected in 1782 as the national symbol of the United States because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks. It represents freedom.

> Bald eagles have been known to live up to 48 years in zoos, but their lifespan in the wild is believed to be shorter.

> The wingspan of a bald eagle ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 feet. The length of the bird’s body ranges from three to 3.5 feet. They weigh from six to eight pounds. Females are larger than males.

> There are multiple causes for the decline of the bald eagle. As human populations grew in North America, the eagle population declined as food supplies for them decreased due to hunting and fishing. The eagles’ natural habitat was destroyed as well as settlers moved westward.

> In 1940, the Bald Eagle Act was passed. The Act was designed to protect the bald eagle from harassment by humans.

> From 1917 to 1953, more than 100,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska because they were perceived as a threat to the salmon population.

> About half of the world’s 70,000 bald eagles live in Alaska because of the salmon population.

> In the 1940s, the agricultural use of DDT and other pesticides grew, which posed a great threat to bald eagles that ate small animals, which ate the plants. The pesticides harmed the adult birds and their eggs.

> In the 1960s and 1970s, the public became more aware of the threat to bald eagles, and it was placed on endangered species lists. In 1967, the federal government officially declared the bald eagle an endangered species in all areas of the U.S. south of the 40th parallel. In 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law. It is considered a landmark piece of legislation. On July 4, 1976, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the bald eagle as an endangered species.

> In 1995, the bald eagle had recovered to the point that its status was changed from endangered to threatened in most of the nation.

> In 2007, the federal Department of Interior removed the bald eagle from the endangered species list. It is still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

> Arkansas ranks in the top 10 states for winter bald eagle sightings. More than 1,000 bald eagles are counted each winter. In 1979, only 368 were recorded. Bald eagles are increasingly staying in Arkansas year-round and nesting.

> If you find a bald eagle nest, don’t approach it. Note the exact location and contact Karen Rowe at 877-873-4651 or krowe@agfc.state.ar.us.

(Sources: www.BaldEagleInfo.com, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.)
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