January is National Bald Eagle month and what better way to celebrate our national emblem than to view these birds in person? Conveniently, winter is the best time to see bald eagles in the wild. Here is your guide to viewing bald eagles in the US Northeast – either by land or while sailing the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways.
Bald eagles are the only eagle that is unique to North America. Look for the eagle’s distinctive white head and tail with a brown body. Bald eagles spend most of their time in the air gliding with their wings in almost a straight line on either side of their bodies. They spend little time flapping their wings. Bald eagles have yellow legs and feet and hooked beaks.
You don’t have to be an experienced bird watcher to enjoy viewing bald eagles. Their large size and proximity to water make bald eagles easier for even children and novice nature enthusiasts to spot.
Each winter bald eagles from Alaska and Canada head south to take advantage of the warmer weather in places like the Chesapeake Bay. Although bald eagles were endangered during the 1970s, their population numbers have rallied back since then, providing more opportunities to see these majestic birds in person.
In addition to the larger number of eagles present in the states during winter, the lack of foliage on trees makes eagles easier to see. Many of us tend to think of bald eagles as living primarily in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, each winter eagles congregate along the waterways in every state except Hawaii.
Fortunately for those of us living in the Northeast, the Chesapeake Bay now has one of the highest concentrations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Chesapeake Bay is home to breeding pairs of bald eagles in addition to hosting eagles to visit each winter from further north.
Where the Eagles Soar
Eagles tend to congregate near the Bay in areas where fish population levels are highest. Top areas for bald eagles include the upper Chesapeake Bay and along the James River, Nanticoke River, Pokomoke River, Potomac River, Rappahannock River, and Nanticoke River.
Look for eagles soaring through the air looking for prey or perched at the top of trees. In the Chesapeake Bay area, bald eagles build and repair their nests during the winter. Bald eagles build huge nests that can weigh up to 2 tons. These nests, made of large sticks and located near the top of mature trees, are among the largest nests in the world. Nests are placed in trees near waterways.
Female eagles will lay eggs between January and March. Typically eagles will lay two eggs per year and incubate them for 5 to 6 weeks. Please be sure to stay a respectful distance from bald eagles, particularly during nesting season, and try to keep noise to a minimum.
The National Wildlife Federation offers the following etiquette rules for eagle watching:
Keep in mind that human presence can stress the birds and cause them to waste precious energy that they need to survive. To avoid being disruptive, follow these basic tips:
- Stay in or near your vehicle at roadside viewing areas
- Move quickly and quietly to observation blinds, where you will be safely hidden from the birds’ view
- Avoid making loud noises, such as yelling, slamming car doors and honking horns
- Use binoculars or a spotting scope to view the birds from a comfortable distance
- Never attempt to make an eagle fly
If you own or charter a boat, viewing eagles from the water is ideal. This can allow you to approach the eagles closely enough for clear viewing while avoiding the noise created by hiking through the wilderness to get within sight of eagles nesting areas. Because fish are typically the largest portion of the bald eagle diet, waterways are the most likely places to spot eagles.
Photo courtesy of Deb Watson