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story.lead_photo.caption Bald eagles, such as this adult photographed near Lost Bridge park, are winter visitors at Beaver Lake. Pontoon boat cruises offered by Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area are a good opportunity to see them. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Everyone likes a bargain, and there's plenty of bang for your buck when you sign up with Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area for an eagle watch pontoon boat cruise on Beaver Lake.

For $10, passengers get a 90-minute boat ride on a beautiful lake. There's a volunteer guide on each trip who knows all about the lake and its wildlife. Chances of seeing bald eagles are good.

The park even furnishes binoculars for each passenger and a warm blanket for people who get chilly. The cost is even less for youngsters -- $5 for ages 6-12.

Cruises take place at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The 25-passenger boat sets sail from Rocky Branch Marina, but passengers register by calling or stopping by the park visitor center, not the marina. Call 479-789-5000 for reservations or stop by the visitor center. It's one-quarter mile east of War Eagle Road on Arkansas 12, about 11 miles east of Rogers.

Trips leave the dock, then head out to open water. The lake here is the widest section of the entire reservoir. The boat heads east, past tall bluffs that are a hot spot for spotting an eagle or two perched on shoreline trees. Then the boat turns south into the Van Winkle Hollow arm.

It's a great destination for seeing bald eagles. The back half of the arm is surrounded by Hobbs State Park. There are no homes or docks, which provides an isolated, wooded environment that attracts bald eagles. Passengers usually spot them roosting on shoreline trees where eagles watch for an easy fish meal to swoop down and catch in their sharp, strong talons. Or, eagles might be seen soaring, gliding over one of the most scenic parts of the entire lake.

Some large birds, particularly vultures, resemble bald eagles in flight. Cruise guides are eager to explain how to tell bald eagles from vultures, hawks or herons, even at a distance.

Most bald eagles seen at the lake during winter have migrated from northern states and Canada. They fly south in the winter to escape the cold and snow, like many birds do.

When the winter is mild, like this winter, fewer bald eagles fly this far south. Food and open water are plentiful in Missouri and Iowa if there's no ice and snow. The mild winter means cruises have encountered fewer bald eagles than normal.

Dwayne Culmer, a volunteer boat driver for the cruises, said the count on most trips is three or four bald eagles. More eagles are seen during colder winters.

Speaking of cold, the No. 1 tip for an enjoyable eagle watch cruise is to dress for weather that's colder than it is on land. It always feels colder on the lake. There's wind, and the moving boat creates its own wind chill. Best to err on the side of warmth with too many clothes than to be cold.

Also, there's no restroom on the boat. That's important to know before a 90-minute cruise.

January and early February are prime times to see bald eagles on the lake. Around Valentine's Day, it's like nature throws a switch and bald eagle start their migration back north.

Bald eagles were an endangered species decades ago, but they've rebounded nationwide. It's possible to see eagles on the lake year-round nowadays, but their numbers soar during winter.

A Hobbs State Park eagle cruise is a great way to see them.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com

Sports on 01/21/2020

Print Headline: Cruises ply where bald eagles fly

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