DEGRAY LAKE RESORT STATE PARK - Thrills and chills are built into January eagle-watching excursions at DeGray Lake Resort and other Arkansas state parks.
The thrills come when the guide piloting the party boat points out one of America’s national symbols perched high in a lakeside tree or swooping low in the sky. For binocular-toting passengers, there’s majesty galore in a white-crowned raptor with a wingspan of 6 or 7 feet.
The chills come because riding in an open-air craft across a windswept lake in winter is a shiver-stirring adventure. And winter happens to be the prime season for spotting bald eagles in the Natural State.
That’s why January is Eagle Awareness Month here. Its main manifestation is set for Jan. 24-26, when DeGray Lake Resort hosts the 35th annual Eagles et Cetera festival. Along with boat tours, visitors can join guided bird walks, owl prowls, live bird demonstrations and other avian-accented activities.
If you’d rather avoid festive crowds, there’ll be less bustle when DeGray Lake operates 90-minute eagle cruises at 2 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, and at the same time Jan. 11-12 and 18-19. In either case, the way to go is the layered look with plenty of cold-weather garb including gloves, cap and ear muffs.
Additional state parks with eagle viewing programs on various days this month include Lake Catherine, Lake Dardanelle, Lake Ouachita, Pinnacle Mountain, Hobbs and Bull Shoals-White River. The cruises typically cost $9 ($5 for youngsters 6-12, under 6 free). Reservations are recommended, particularly for DeGray Lake’s Eagles et Cetera weekend.
“Arkansas is considered by many as the mecca of eagle watching during winter, primarily because of its many large and open waters,” according to the website wildbird-watching.com. “Bald eagles feed on fish as a primary food source, and Arkansas lakes provide the food these birds crave.”
Well more than a thousand bald eagles are believed to be wintering this season in Arkansas. That’s an impressively large number, given that the species faced extinction in the 1950s, when fewer than 500 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 states. By comparison, current estimates run to more than 10,000 breeding pairs, and the bald eagle is no longer listed as “endangered” or even “threatened.”
The Continental Congress made it the national bird of the new republic in 1782 while adopting the design still used on the Great Seal of the United States: a bald eagle grasping 13 arrows and a 13-leaf olive branch with its talons.
If eagles could file libel suits, they might have brought a case against Benjamin Franklin. That Founding Father wrote in 1784: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. … Besides he is a rank coward. The little king bird not bigger than a sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.”
It’s true that bald eagles do sometimes practice what is called kleptoparasitism, where they steal food away from other predators. They will also scavenge carcasses, but their main fare is live fish caught by swooping down over the water and snatching the prey with their talons.
Whatever their dubious habits, they remain comfortably perched as America’s bird after more than two centuries. As a park interpreter at DeGray Lake told wildbird-watching.com: “They are amazing and captivating each and every time I get a glimpse. It never gets old.”
For information or eagle watching reservations at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, call (501) 865-5810. Information on all state parks with bald eagle programs can be found at arkansasstate.Parks.com.
Weekend, Pages 25 on 01/02/2014
Print Headline: January is eagle-watching time on DeGray Lake