Bald eagles are the tyrannosaurus rex of the bird world in Southeast Alaska. Aggressive and sharp-eyed, dominating with their size and power, eagles are just as likely to steal another's catch as find their own food. Adept scavengers, they scan beaches and shorelines for carcasses and spawned-out dead fish.
Eagles are monogamous and generally pair for life. They use the same nest year after year, repairing and adding to the nest platform. Usually situated in tall trees overlooking the water, these nests can become enormous and contain hundreds of pounds of branches, sticks and nesting material. Eagles can be seen on their nests in late May and June, and care for their chicks over the summer. The chicks grow quickly and fledge in August and September.
Young eagles can be quite clumsy on the wing. Although eagles do become skilled at swooping down and grabbing fish from the water, eagle-watchers know that these raptors often miss and come up with empty talons. They sometimes wind up in the water, too wet and heavy to fly, and swim with a labored crawl stroke.
Immature bald eagles appear as large as adults, but lack the white head and tail. Instead, they are a mottled brown and white. First year eagles are dark brown, with brown eyes and a brown bill. In their second and third years they develop a white bib that stands out against the darker belly feathers - this eventually darkens to a uniform brown. The white head and tail develop around the fifth year. As an eagle matures, its bill and eyes gradually turn yellow.
Look for: The striking white head of the mature bald eagle stands out like a white softball in the trees. A prime perch will often draw several birds, so look in surrounding trees as well. These birds may be scoping out a productive stretch of water or resting after feeding. A stream full of spawning salmon is a magnet for eagles and gulls. Outside of salmon spawning season, a cluster of eagles often indicates the presence of something dead.
Eagles have a six to eight foot wingspan, and although they appear to be heavier, they weigh about nine pounds on average. In flight, eagles look like soaring planks, with their wings held relatively flat. Eagles are common year-round in Southeast Alaska.
Listen for: The eagle's distinct call is a staccato, twittering whistle that descends in pitch. A mated pair of eagles will call back and forth as they reunite after hunting separately, or when they return to a nest tree.