Some bald eagles can be found in Missouri throughout the year, but in winter, this relatively small resident population is swelled by migrating eagles from the north.
There have been enough weather variations in recent weeks that we’re still unclear about how severe our winter will be. If you’re not looking forward to those snaps of snow, ice, and cold temperatures, that may be still lurking in the weeks ahead, cheer up – there will be a bright side. The colder the winters in Missouri get, the more it increases our chances of seeing of this area’s most eye-catching winter visitors – bald eagles.
Some bald eagles can be found in Missouri throughout the year, but in winter, this relatively small resident population is swelled by migrating eagles from the north. Missouri’s annual mid-winter eagle survey (which is conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation each January) usually records more than 2,000 birds in the state. This count makes the Show-Me state one of the leading states in wintering eagle populations.
This is about the time of year those winter populations are near their peak. The cold fronts, snow storms and all the other things that highlight winter weather in the northern areas of the continent are conditions that put eagles in motion towards warmer locations further south. Eagles often follow open water and, although it may get cold here, the birds will be able to find more open water here in this region than in the still-colder north.
When you see a bald eagle, you’re catching a glimpse of one of nature’s truly spectacular creatures. Its large size (wing span of up to eight feet, weight of up to 15 pounds), the striking contrast of its white head against its dark body and its fierce expression are some of the reasons this birds has always been an impressive sight to humans.
But there’s more to admire about this bird than its looks. An eagle’s vision is five to six times sharper than a human’s. The same bony, protruding brow that gives an eagle its “fierce” expression also shades its eyes for keener vision.
An eagle’s normal flight speed ranges between 20 and 40 miles per hour, but, when diving, it can reach speeds of more than 100 mph. That kind of diving speed adds to the effectiveness of the bird’s two-inch, needle-sharp talons.
As stated earlier, winter is a great time to view eagles in this area. Fish compose between 60 and 90 percent of an eagle’s diet, so the edges of lakes and rivers are good places to look for eagles. Although eagles can be seen at any time of day, early morning is a good time for eagle-viewing trips because the birds are still roosting. Binoculars are a must.
When you’re scanning the shoreline of a lake or river in the early morning, look for large birds roosting in trees. Even if you can’t see its white head at first, you can spot an eagle roosting in a tree from a long distance – even without binoculars. The size of an eagle makes it stand out from other birds you may see in a tree.
Later in the day, look for eagles soaring. Sometimes they look like vultures in flight, but a binocular-aided inspection may help see the tell-tale white head. (Keep in mind that the white feathers on a bald eagle’s head don’t come in until the bird is four or five years old.)
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.