Bald Eagles in the Piney Woods
By Jay M. Huner
A bit after dawn on October 11, 2012, I was casting a jig off my pier on the east side of Cotile Lake in northwest Rapides Parish Louisiana. As I looked down the southeast arm of the lake, I noticed a huge chocolate brown bird lumbering with slow deliberate wing beats toward me about 500 feet above the lake. My first inclination was to think - Great Blue Heron. But, no, the silhouette wasn't quite right. I had my suspicions and realized as it got closer that it was a Bald Eagle.
I put my rod down and quickly raised my binoculars and focused on a juvenile eagle. As it passed just to my right, I noticed another bird following along behind it. The second bird was a magnificent adult Bald Eagle with its snow white head and tail juxtaposed against the chocolate body.
When I was a child in the 1950s, sighting any eagle, much less two eagles, in our region would have been cause for great attention. At that time, raptors including eagles, kites, hawks, and falcons were suffering from pesticide poisoning through their food chains as the result of wide-spread, often indiscriminate use of chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds like DDT. Now, thanks to the banning of those chemicals and intense protection of the birds from illegal hunting, most people who want to see Bald Eagles in the piney woods will be able to find one.
Bald Eagles were distributed all across North America when the USA was founded. But, they became much less common through persecution and loss of habitat culminating in the pesticide problem cited above. Resident southern Bald Eagles nested in the winter and most moved northward during the summer. As they returned south to their nesting ground, they were joined by eagles from farther north escaping harsher winters.
At least 150 pairs of Bald Eagles now nest in our region every winter. In Louisiana, these birds are concentrated in the Atchafalaya Basin and the northern part of Toledo Bend Reservoir. However, nesting and wintering eagles are found throughout the state concentrating along major rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
What do Bald Eagles eat? Their preferred diet is fish but they do hunt mammals and waterbirds, especially ducks, geese, and coots. Bald Eagles, however, are survivors and will readily eat carcasses of dead animals. A few years ago, one of the Bald Eagles at Cotile Lake ate a very large, dead catfish that drifted up to shore. A You-Tube video circulated last winter showing an adult eagle trying to pick up a bloated nutria in a pond near Baton Rouge. The nutria was too heavy to pick up and the eagle finally landed on the nutria and used its wings as paddles to draw it to shore!
I once watched a pair of Bald Eagles - an adult and a juvenile - chase a crippled Snow Goose across a flooded, bare ricefield. The goose landed in very shallow water followed by the two eagles. I thought sure that the eagles would gang up on the goose. But, the goose fought off the eagles that left without lunch!
While Bald Eagles sort of laze along much of the time, they can make breath taking power dives to secure prey. I saw one adult eagle chase a Northern Shoveler around a 50 acre crawfish pond complex. The duck was in high gear and the eagle was right on its tail. I'm not sure who won the race as the duck headed north across the nearby cane fields, disappearing from sight with the eagle in hot pursuit.
Bald Eagles mature after several years. By the fourth year, the brown birds acquire their white heads and tails but do have splotches of white under their wings and on their lower bodies. Female eagles are conspicuously larger than males. For such large birds, they have weak sounding calls. The calls are usually a series of very high-pitched piping or whistling notes.
Bald Eagles build huge nests. Those in the tops of dead trees can be quite spectacular and visible from far away. However, they are subject to being destroyed by high winds. The landmark nest at the intersection of I-310 and I-10 just west of New Orleans was a casualty of Hurricane Issac this year.
A caution - if you see a huge dark eagle during the winter, check it out closely. It may be a Golden Eagle. It seems as if everyone has a digital camera of some sorts now. So, take pictures of any eagles you see and share them with folks like me.
[Note: There is an annual Eagle Expo in February in Morgan City, Louisiana. For information, contact: Cajun Coast Visitor and Convention Bureau, P. O. Box 2332, Morgan City, LA 70381.]
Jay V. Huner, Louisiana Ecrevisse