"Above all other birds it is soaring eagle, with its size and weight, that gives most abiding impression of power and purpose in air," declared Edwin Way Teale in Atlantic Monthly in 1957. Unique to North America and revered for its majestic appearance, legendary strength and longevity, bald eagle became national emblem of United States in 1782 and continues to be an easily recognized symbol of patriotism.
Once endangered in all of lower 48 states, bald eagles came dangerously close to extinction. However, due to increased awareness, protective legislation and widespread conservation efforts over past fifty years, bald eagle population is making a remarkable comeback, and eagle watching is becoming a popular pastime for nature lovers across country, especially in Arkansas as well as parts of Missouri.
Kelly Farrell, Park Interpreter for DeGray Lake Resort State Park in Bismarck, Arkansas, has seen hundreds of bald eagles during her numerous jaunts as an eagle-watching tour guide. "It never gets old," she remarked. "They are amazing and captivating each and every time I get a glimpse."
Park Interpreter Sarah Keating of Lake Dardanelle State Park concurred. "The feeling of seeing this majestic bird soaring across lake for first time is still awe-inspiring even to me. Therefore, any time you can help a visitor experience a 'first' like this is truly gratifying."
Bald eagles follow seasonal food supplies, so they travel south along Mississippi Flyway from around Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois when northern waters begin to freeze. Migratory patterns vary according to John Morrow, Park Interpreter at Petit Jean State Park. "Some eagles are here year-round, and some are coming in from Canada and far northern states. Some don’t migrate at all—like in Alaska, where they are almost as common as dirt."
Eagles begin to arrive in Arkansas as early as mid-October and stay all winter long, departing around February and as late as mid-March. Over 1,700 eagles may winter in The Natural State, depending on weather conditions. Wintering eagles favor Ouachitas and Ozarks for excellent habitat replete with open waters, food and shelter. "The locations they choose are usually remote with little disturbance, and good winter roosting areas are available," commented Park Naturalist Merle Rogers of Roaring River State Park in Cassville, Missouri.
Mainly fish eaters, bald eagles are attracted to area’s abundant lakes, undeveloped shorelines, countless streams and wild rivers. "When lake’s surface water temperature falls to 41-42º F, there is a mass die-off of shad, a small fish that is a favorite among eagles," revealed guide Jay Viator of Belle of Ozarks in Eureka Springs. "Young, immature bald eagles, not yet skilled at catching fish, frequent chicken barns in area to eat dead chickens thrown out by farmers," he continued.
In addition to fish and carrion, eagles feed on turtles, waterfowl and small mammals, which they hunt themselves or pirate from smaller raptors. "They are lazy birds!" exclaimed Park Interpreter Lori Anderson of Petit Jean State Park. "They want to find food without much work. Being largest bird around, eagle will steal food that other birds catch."