It’s a moment that you will never forget. You’re hiking along a narrow stretch of trail near a stream or lake when you come to a clearing. You hear a long, ominous screech from above. Your gaze focuses skyward trying to locate the source of the sound, and then you see it—gracefully, majestically, effortlessly soaring high above you in a deep blue sky. It’s your first glimpse of a bald eagle in the wild.
Not long ago it was extremely rare to spot a bald eagle, but today you can see them in just about every state in the continental U.S., including Alabama, where the eagle is celebrated with a series of weekend Eagle Awareness events at Lake Guntersville State Park.
Eagle Awareness programs takes place over several weekends, and highlight this remarkable raptor with educational programs, viewing hikes, and live bird demonstrations. This year’s Eagle Awareness Weekends run from January 19 to February 18.
Back from the Brink of Extinction
A sharp decline in the eagle population was first recognized in 1940, causing the government to put the bird on the endangered species list for fear that they would be extinct before long. By 1963, things were only getting worse, and only 417 nesting pairs of eagles were known to exist in the U.S. Federal and state agencies and the public mounted a concerted effort to restore the population, and in 2007 more than 8,500 nesting pairs were recorded, enough for the bird to be removed from the list for the first time in over 60 years.
Alabama was also involved in the effort. In 1984, the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program established a project that would hopefully return the bald eagle population to the state, and the following year project leaders released four eagles in Jackson County. In an effort to engage and educate the public of the importance of this program, Lake Guntersville State Park’s first naturalist, Linda Reynolds, came up with an idea to host a weekend of presentations, demonstrations, and hikes at the park all centered on the bald eagle, and with that the Eagle Awareness Weekends were born.
According to Lake Guntersville State Park Naturalist Michael Ezell, the results since that first release, or "hack," has been remarkable, with a steady increase in the bald eagle population over the years, from zero sightings in 1990 to 77 in 2006. After 2007, when the bird was removed from the endangered species list, the yearly count turned into simple monitoring of the population and nests, and that monitoring continues today.
"The sightings [over the years] are reflective of a national increase in the species population," says Ezell. “I am currently monitoring one [nest] location in the park with what I believe will be an active nest this year. I believe, based on bird sightings, that the farther reaches of the park contain at least 2 more possible nests.”
A Fun & Educational Weekend
That first Eagle Awareness Weekend was 33 years ago, and since that time the event has been gaining in popularity and now averages more than 420 people per weekend.
Each weekend begins on Friday evening with informative speakers and a social. From there, the presentations continue through Sunday afternoon. Emily Vanderford, natural resource planner for Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources State Park Division (DCNR) is proud of the line-up of presenters that are featured each year, and discussions are not limited to raptors.
For example, a regular fan favorite is the presentation on frogs by Dr. George Cline of Jacksonville State University.
Other highlights include Dr. Cline’s discussions on the state’s reptiles; naturalist Paul Franklin’s presentation on native plants, Ezell’s presentation on Alabama Rivers; and a talk on carnivorous plants with the park’s Brittany Hughes.
Then there are the birds themselves. Throughout the weekend, attendees are thrilled with live bird presentations by several state raptor organizations.
"The Southeastern Raptor Center is always a special treat," Vanderford says, “especially for the Auburn fans who have enjoyed watching Spirit soar over Jordan-Hare. Wings to SOAR hosts a ‘flighted’ program that provides an especially up-close bird experience for many guests.”
But with so much to do, is there a particular weekend or program that stands out that people shouldn’t miss?
"You really can’t go wrong with any of the programs," Vanderford says. “The best way to experience Eagle Awareness is to participate in as many of the weekend’s activities as possible. Bundle up and go on an early morning eagle watch, and then warm up back in the lodge restaurant with a buffet breakfast. Take advantage of the Saturday morning field trip options, and of course, don’t miss the live bird programs!”
Each Eagle Awareness Weekend is free to the public. Lake Guntersville State Park has set up special packages so that you can spend a comfortable weekend at the park in the lodge, but hurry, because lodging goes quickly.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.