After Hurricane Ivan devastated our area in 2004, my son was working to repair docks in local waterways. One day after working on a project in Bayou Texar, he stopped by our house nearby and said that he had seen a bald eagle fly over. My wife and I both responded with amazement, but were really thinking, “yeah right.”
A few days later we were sitting on the back porch and glanced up to see a huge bird flying over. And wouldn’t you know it? It was, indeed, a bald eagle. We both looked at each other and just shook our heads in amazement. It was totally cool!
In the 1970s I worked for a local chemical plant that had a bird sanctuary on the property. Occasionally, a bald eagle would appear during the winter months, but it was not annually, and it was always a real treat to see it. Ironically, bald eagle sightings in our area have become quite common since Ivan’s warpath rolled through our coastal city. People are spotting them over Bayou Texar in Pensacola, around Big Lagoon State Park in Perdido Key, above the Gulf Islands National Seashore and Pensacola Beach, in the Naval Live Oaks area near Gulf Breeze, and flying along the bluffs of Scenic Highway. I actually saw three flying together over Big Sabine on Pensacola Beach recently. They are nesting all over the area now.
Photo by Brian Butler
Bald eagles are large birds, generally 30-to-40 inches long with a 7-to-8 foot wingspan. They are hard to misidentify – everyone knows a bald eagle. However, juvenile bald eagles do not have the distinct white head and tail or the brilliant yellow beak. Rather, they are dark brown with possible white spots on their wings, and the beak is darker. Eagles don’t mature until they reach 5-to-6 years old, when their plumage color changes to the distinct white head that everyone recognizes. Eagles feed mostly on fish but will also prey on small birds and mammals. They are also known to scavenge, including road-kill, and will “pirate” captured food from other birds — hence the reason why ospreys and bald eagles do not really get along.
Bald eagles tend to migrate between their breeding grounds in Canada and those of on the Gulf Coast. The migrants are typically non-breeding individuals, while the breeders tend to remain one area year-round.
As of 2014, Florida has the highest density of southern breeding populations in the lower 48 states; about 1500 nests. Most bald eagles return to Florida in the fall for nest building. Their nests typically are in forested areas near waterways, preferring the tallest trees. Bald eagle nests are quite large — the record in Florida was set at 9.5 feet in diameter. Bald eagles typically lay 1-to-3 eggs per clutch, but may lay a second clutch if the first is unsuccessful. The young remain in the nest until they take their first flight – some 10 to 13 weeks after hatching, usually in the springtime. So winter is a good time to view these animals in our area.
Forty years ago, our national symbol was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range. Their numbers plummeted for a variety of reasons, including habitat destruction, illegal shooting and the contamination of its food source as a consequence of the pesticide DDT. They were placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species List (ESL). In 1972 DDT was banned, bald eagles were put on the ESL and protected from poaching. They have since recovered.
Today they are no longer on the Endangered Species list and have been removed from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions (FWC) imperiled species list as well. However, they are still protected federally by the Bald / Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Protection Act. They are also protected in Florida by state law.
Photo by Dan Dunn
POTENTIAL VIEWING LOCATIONS:
Nest locations identified between 2012-2014:
- 3 in the Perdido Key area: Tarkiln Bayou, Innerarity Point, Big Lagoon State Park (last surveyed in 2014)
- 1 near Bayou Grande (2012)
- 1 near University of West Florida (2012)
- 3 along the Santa Rosa County side of Escambia Bay: near Floridatown, Mulat Bayou, Indian Bayou (2012)
- 1 near Holley (2012)
- 1 near Munson (2014)
Both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were re-surveyed in 2015-16.
Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida
There are four permanently injured bald eagles at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida. The public is welcome to visit the sanctuary Wednesday through Saturday from 12:00 – 3:30 p.m. (self-guided).
105 North S Street, Pensacola FL 32505
For more information:
Header Photo Dan Dunn