Once the CQ Princess finally made its way out into Kentucky Lake around the wreck, we cruised up and down the lake shore looking for eagles. Kate Heyden, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife avian biologist, was our spotter and narrator for the trip.
We learned that no bald eagles were found in Kentucky 40 years ago. In 1980 they "hacked" 44 young eagles at the lake. Eagles return to the area where they learned to fly when it's time to breed, so birds from somewhere else are brought in, and kept in boxes until they are ready to fledge. Juvenile eagles are brown, with mottled areas of white, for about 5 years when they are mature enough to breed and get their white heads and tails. During those years, they wander all over. Kate described a program to track young birds with radio transmitters. The results are mapped online at http://fw.ky.gov/navigation.aspx?cid=958. By 2011, she reported, we now have 98 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the state of Kentucky - almost any good sized lake will have some.
Some of the birds we saw are permanent residents, and they are into their courtship behavior and early nesting. Others migrate to Kentucky from northern states when cold weather freezes the lakes and rivers, making it harder to find food in their home territory. It rarely gets cold enough here to freeze large bodies of water, and barge navigation keeps the channels open as well should a cold snap arrive. On our cruise, we saw about 27 eagles. In other years, up to 50 or 60 have been found in the same time. This year has been unusually warm up north. I heard they canceled parts of the winter festival in Minneapolis for lack of snow.
Our weather over the weekend was wonderful with blue skies and a strong wind in the morning which died down by noon. Everyone had lots of opportunities to tell the difference between eagles and turkey vultures. Look at the straight line of the eagle wings. A turkey vulture flies with its wings in a V - a dihedral. And sometimes the juvenile eagles have so much white on their bellies, you have to look closely to make sure it isn't a red tailed hawk, especially when they are far away.
After lunch, we piled into four vans to drive through Land Between the Lakes looking for eagles and any other wildlife we could spot. During the weekend Dick and I saw a red fox and red headed woodpeckers. As the sun began to set Saturday afternoon, we came to a popular roosting area for the eagles. With spotting scopes and binoculars we got a great look at about 30 birds coming in to spend the night, but it was far away so I didn't get any closeup photos of them. Every white spot in this picture is an adult bald eagle, and there are many that don't appear in the photo.
LBL is a long neck of land between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, run by the US Forest Service as a National Recreation Area. Summer is the time when most visitors enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, etc. Programs include a planetarium, nature center, an operating farm called the Homeplace, and a fenced bison and elk prairie, while white tailed deer and fallow deer roam freely.
We enjoyed the raptor programs presented at these eagle weekends for years. Once we saw the Little Rock, Arkansas, Zoo do the program, and a docent spoke without actually handing any of the birds. "I could do that!" I thought to myself. So when I retired a few years ago, I joined Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky as a volunteer, to get involved doing programs. At RROKI, however, you learn to do everything required for the care and rehabilitation of birds. It was a special thrill to me to return to the Eagle Weekend as a presenter, not just a visitor! We had 174 people at our program on Saturday evening, and many of them came up afterward for more questions and to take photos. Where else do you have a chance to see these magnificent birds up close and personal!