'Awesome! Awesome!' exclaimed a 10-year old as he spied a bald eagle through a spotting scope for the first time at Salt Creek Waterfowl Management Area. Between bouts of 'Awesome!', the boy pulled away from the eyepiece and scanned for the eagle with his unaided eye, not believing that the dark speck sitting on the dike road was the same bird he could see super-sized with the scope.
Whether the observer is a child or an adult, everyone can have this experience in February in Northern Utah. By February, the population of wintering bald eagles has reached its peak and the birds have not yet begun to return north to breeding areas in Canada's and Alaska's interiors.
State and federal wildlife agencies and conservation groups capitalize on the eagles' presence with the Division of Wildlife Resource's Bald Eagle Day at several locations on Feb. 13, and an eagle survey on Feb. 20.
Experienced staff and volunteers at Farmington Bay and Salt Creek WMAs, and at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, will help viewers observe eagles and will answer questions on Feb. 13. Wasatch Audubon Society will lead an annual eagle survey to tally both bald and golden eagles in the East Canyon area on Feb. 20.
At these events, you might see eagles loafing on the ground, roosting in trees or flying overhead. Greater winter densities also means the possibility of action-packed conflicts between birds fighting over food sources; the bald eagle is well-known as an opportunistic hunter and individuals regularly pirate food from other eagles, or from other species that are not as effective at defending their catches.
While bald eagles are usually associated with water and eat more fish than anything else, they're also adept at snatching a gull out of the air or an American coot off the water's surface, and don't mind noshing on dead stuff they happen to find.
Can't make any of the events? You can pick up a map with the Bald Eagle Day locations and more at Bear River's James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center, and visit those places on your own.
Eagles can appear anywhere. I've seen them flying over my house in Ogden, over the Supersonic Car Wash in Riverdale as I stepped out of my dirty car (and looked up, mouth agape as the big bird flapped past) and roosting in big trees at Pineview Reservoir and Willard Bay State Park.
Several years ago, I was birding at Ogden Bay WMA and watched a conflict between immature and adult bald eagles. The birds' flight paths converged, one bird above the other. While the lower bird flipped upside down and reached for the other with legs and talons, the upper bird reached down in the same way. They appeared to lock talons and then tumbled earthward.
Imagine a pair of 10-pound eagles with six-and-a-half-foot wingspans abandoning any attempt at controlled flight and plummeting toward earth. They parted before hitting the ground and both resumed flying in different directions. That interaction could have been a food conflict, a territory challenge or even a courtship display.
Wasatch Audubon witnessed a most entertaining food conflict a few years ago during the annual survey above East Canyon Creek. One birder spotted a winter-killed deer carcass high on a slope, and most of us got a look as a golden eagle landed on the carcass, flushing several black-billed magpies away. But the magpies weren't the only ones to get the boot. The eagle fed until a coyote descended the slope, flushed the eagle and claimed the carcass. It could easily have been the other way around.
These sights are out there for you to see. Need more information? Visit the DWR's Web site at http://wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/ and check the Latest News link; visit Bear River Refuge's Web site at http://www.fws.gov/bearriver/ and check the Events link; or visit Wasatch Audubon's Web site at http://www.wasatchaudubon.org/ and check the calendar in The Mountain Chickadee newsletter.
Need more inspiration? One family of first-time bald eagle-watchers who visited Salt Creek on Bald Eagle Day a couple years ago included a mom and a couple kids. They were so thrilled with what they witnessed that they went home and crow-barred dad out of the house, returning with him in the afternoon to see the eagles. You've gotta love that enthusiasm!
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.