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Twenty-five years ago, it was rare to see an American bald eagle soaring over central Kentucky, but times are changing.
While it’s still a treat to marvel at the majestic icons of freedom, spotting one of these birds in a treetop or high on a rock overlooking a lake doesn’t take the work or sheer luck that it once did.
There’s even a spot alongside a busy stretch of road in Hardin County that’s visited each winter by bald eagles that winter in the Bluegrass.
They’re among hundreds that travel to Kentucky from northern states each December when their water sources back home freeze.
Last year, wildlife officials counted about 400 visiting eagles throughout Kentucky with most wintering at the state’s larger reservoirs.
Kentucky, especially the western half of the state and along the banks of the Ohio River, historically has been a wintering ground for American bald eagles native to northern states.
While manmade lakes bring more to the state, there’s nothing new about winter’s return of eagles to the state.
What is new is the growing number of bald eagles calling Kentucky home year-round.
Kathryn Heyden, an avian biologist who oversees the state’s growing bald eagle population with Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said habitat destruction, shootings and the pesticide DDT eliminated any traceable resident population of bald eagles from Kentucky between 1950 and 1986.
A federal ban on DDT three decades ago, coupled with habitat restoration and improved wildlife education paved the way for an effort in 1987 to return the birds to the bluegrass.
That year, a single breeding pair were brought into Kentucky to begin repopulating the state.
By 2000, that single pair grew into two dozen nesting pairs.
This year, Heyden said 84 nesting pairs have been identified in the state.
“It’s a great success story,” Heyden said.
Because some eagles can live up to 30 years, it’s possible that some of the original breeders still call Kentucky home.
Like many birds, bald eagles mate for life.
It’s around January, not long after the out-of-state birds start arriving in Kentucky, when those eagles take to their 6-foot-tall by 6-foot-deep nests to focus on a new year’s crop of baby birds.
Eggs start appearing around March, with each pair averaging two chicks. By May, young birds are leaving the nest to roam around for a few years, before finding a place to sink roots of their own.
During those first five years of a bald eagle’s life, they lack the distinctive “bald” look of a white-feathered head. Instead, they don a mix of brown and white feather combinations.
For an inexperienced birdwatcher, a young bald eagle can be mistaken for a large hawk.
For those familiar with the shape and size of a bald eagle’s head and beak, there’s no mistaking a young bald eagle for another raptor.
With bald eagles no longer on the federal endangered species list and with their populations growing in Kentucky, state park and wildlife officials are tapping into a new ecotourism opportunity by offering eagle watching tours throughout the state.
Information about organized bald eagle viewing events is available through KDFWR’s website or by calling KDFWR spokesman Gil Lawson at (502) 564-4270, Ext. 168.
Land Between the Lakes and other big bodies of water in western Kentucky are sure bets for people wanting to spot a bald eagle on their own, without much trouble, Heyden said.
Those with a sharp eye, however, soon realize there’s no need to travel to spot the big birds.
“You can see an eagle in Kentucky just about anywhere,” Heyden said. “Most hang out around good fishing spots, but you might see them in a field eating a deer carcass or anywhere else. It’s worth it to keep your eyes open.”
Kentucky biologists no longer track eagle sightings, but experts are highly interested in identifying their nesting locations.
Anyone who spots a nesting pair of bald eagles is asked to notify KDFWR biologists by calling (800) 858-1549.
Because bald eagle populations in Kentucky still are considered threatened, Heyden recommends leaving the nests a secret. She also urges people to keep their distances.
“They can be loved to death,” Heyden said of America’s national bird. “Eagles are sensitive to disturbances. If you keep birds from tending to nest, that can have an impact on their productivity.”
According to Heyden, anyone close enough to hear a bald eagle vocalize, is too close.
Follow two young eagles’ lives online. To give birds the utmost freedom while monitoring their behavior, KDFWR has an alternative to birdwatching.
Earlier this year, Heyden equipped two young eagles at Ballard Wildlife Management Area with 2.5-ounce GPS transmitters. The micro-gear is carried inside an unobtrusive backpack equipped with tiny solar cells that recharge the transmitter batteries.
Heyden has tracked the birds along a 250-mile trip into Illinois. She also followed the male of the pair to the Mississippi River earlier this year. He returned to northern Illinois soon after his trip.
What’s interesting about the young birds, Heyden said, is that they’re roaming at this point in their lives — still too immature to concern themselves with settling down.
That makes for some entertaining studies for folks like Heyden and a different form of entertainment for many others.
Anyone with Internet access can follow the birds with Heyden online at www.fw.ky.gov/baldeagle tracking.asp.
Locations of the birds are taken hourly, but the data is received and updated on the website at three-day intervals.
Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750 firstname.lastname@example.org.