Hunting the best spots to see bald eagles

Sarah Sales/Contributed photo Winter is the perfect time of year to spot a bald eagle at Cheney Lake. This eagle was photographed perched high in a tree at Cheney State Park by local artist Sarah Sales, known for her ability to capture rare photos of native birds.

By Michelle Leidy-Franklin

Once on the brink of extinction, the bald eagle has seen a steady increase in population that makes some Kansas state parks a prime location to catch a glimpse of one.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the lower 48 U.S. states are home to more that 316,000 bald eagles and more than 70,000 breeding pairs, up from less than 500 pairs in the late 1960s. Breeding pairs have increased by more than 700 percent since 2006 alone.
Populations of the nation’s bird declined for a number of reasons. Food sources for the bald eagle decreased, habitat and nesting sites declined, they were hunted as nuisances to ranchers, and suffered from environmental pollution. The pesticide known as DDT caused fragility in eagle eggs, causing eggs to break during incubation. Some eagles even suffered lead poisoning after consuming waterfowl contaminated by lead shot.
In 1940 the Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed by Congress. The golden eagle was added to the protection act in 1962 and the law became the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In 1967 the bald eagle was first listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.

The increase in the bald eagle population can be credited in no small part to national conservation efforts. Though still a protected species, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list on June 28, 2007. It is still illegal to kill, sell, or harm bald eagles, or their nests or eggs. First time violators of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act can face a misdemeanor charge with a penalty of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The second offense comes with felony charges, up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Offenders could also face additional consequences under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
In recent years, bald eagle sightings have become a regular occurrence. With wide open spaces and plenty of trees and state parks with ample nesting sites, the bald eagle has once again become an opportunity for bird watching.
Spotting a bald eagle in Kansas is now pretty simple. Kansas has approximately 150 active bald eagle nests. With some tips from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, seeing a bald eagle can be part of your outdoor activities.
• Winter is the best season to spot a bald eagle. They tend to look for larger bodies of water that have not completely frozen over. Bald eagles primarily eat fish and waterfowl and will congregate near reservoirs and other open bodies of water.
• Keep your distance. Watch from a safe distance and bring binoculars or spotting scopes to keep from disturbing the eagles. Bald eagles are still a protected species and disturbing or harassing them can be considered a federal offense.
• Windy days are a good time to observe a bald eagle. When heavy winds create waves that wash dead fish and waterfowl on downwind shorelines, eagles often gather to take advantage of the easy food source.
• Head to the area below a dam if accessible. Eagles often gather there, especially when water is being released. The River Pond Campground at Tuttle Creek State Park is a good place to watch for them.
• End of winter warming can produce large numbers of eagles around water. More than 100 eagles have been spotted at Cheney Lake after such an event. They were feeding on white perch that had died as a result of the weather and washed ashore.
• Tracking where you have spotted bald eagles in the past can help bird watchers find them again in the future. Bald eagles often return to the same trees and shoreline sections for many years. Parking near the eagles’ favorite trees can allow closer observation.
• Watch for large nests in big trees. Eagles can build nests as large as a small car. Nests can be spotted in several Kansas state parks. Eggs will be laid soon.
• State park offices are a great way to find resources on how to spot a bald eagle. Follow them on Facebook and don’t be afraid to ask questions.