Bald Eagles return to Reelfoot; other birds just passing through
American bald eagles, winged symbols of America’s majesty and might, have left their northern habitats and arrived at Reelfoot Lake for the winter.
Less common visitors — pelicans — have also been spotted on the lake in recent weeks as they make their migratory trip to the Gulf of Mexico.
“They don’t stop here every year,” said Randy Cook, manager of Reelfoot Lake National Wildlife Refuge. “When they do, we normally get between 20 and 200. But this year, there’s more of them for some reason. We estimate there’s been between 400 and 500 at the lake this year.”
The eagles, on the other hand, are annual visitors, attracting bird-watchers and tourists from throughout the region.
“A few eagles beginning to show up. We see between 15 to 20 each morning,” said David Haggard, interpretive specialist at Reelfoot State Park.
Haggard, who’s been on the job at Reelfoot State Park about 20 years, has seen many an eagle in his time. He’s also seen many tourists — thousands — wanting to see for themselves an eagle in the wild.
Eagles leave the Great Lakes states and southern Canada in late October and head south for the winter. Many choose Reelfoot Lake as their winter stopover. The total contingent averages between 150 and 170 in any given year. They arrive before Thanksgiving and leave in late February and early March.
He said a “real good year” is when about 250 show up.
“They’ll still be hard to see because all the leaves haven’t fallen off the trees. But when that happens, you’ll be able to see them easily,” he said.
And not all of the imperial visitors return north. Some choose to make Reelfoot Lake their home away from home.
“Last year there were 13 nests here on Reelfoot, producing 21 babies,” he said. “We no longer have a banding program because, since the 1970s, eagles have made a comeback (population-wise). We just try to observe a nest and record how many young are in it.”
The state park offers eagle tours via boats on the lake. The tours start the first weekend in January, continue seven days a week and end the first weekend in March. A tour lasts two hours and costs $5 person.
Haggard said there’s always a lot of interest in seeing the national symbol on the wing, in the wild. They not only appear imperial and majestic perched atop a cypress tree, but they also put on quite a show high above the lake.
“Interest has leveled off because there’s so many more now than there used to be,” he said. “They are in a lot of places. When we first started eagle activities 25 years ago, Reelfoot was about the only place in this part of the country where people could see them. Most people had never seen one in the wild.
“Now, it’s estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 tourists come through here during the eagle season.”
In addition to signing up for a boat tour of the lake to see eagles in their winter habitat, tourists can purchase eagle memorabilia at the State Park facility near Blue Bank. “We have really good gift shop sales on eagle stuff like tee shirts,” Haggard said. “It’s popular because people want to learn about eagles and take a souvenir home with them.”
And while they’re here, they can visit a large cage at the state park where three injured eagles make their permanent home.
One of the eagles, “Bly,” has been there since he was injured in 1989. Haggard figures Bly is 18 or 19 years old.
“An eagle’s lifespan is between 30 and 40 years,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 11.08.07
Bald eagles, Reelfoot Lake