Wildlife refuges where the rare bald eagle greets visitors

On June 20, 1782, when the Continental Congress finally passed a bill providing for an official national seal, that seal featured a magnificent bird that became symbolic of the new nation -- the bald eagle.

However, even as this accord was reached (after six years, three committees, and 14 men's efforts), there was nothing passed to protect the powerful birds. Bald eagles ranged over much of the country, and no threat to their existence could be imagined.

Today, that is changed. Perhaps only 750 pairs of bald eagles nest south of Canada. Man has encroached on the eagles' domain, limiting their capacity to reproduce. Recent articles cite that nesting figure above and estimate that there are only 15,000 left in the United States and that most of those are in Alaska.

Still, the chance of seeing a bald eagle in the wild is not as remote as those figures might make it seem. Many more than the 750 nesting pairs spend the winter in the lower 48 states; and Alaska, the Everglades, and remote stretches of the West are not the only places to see these white-headed and white- tailed superhunters.

Two places in the middle of the continent known for their wintering numbers of bald eagles are along the Mississippi flyway in western Kentucky and Tennessee. One is the Land Between the Lakes, a Tennessee Valley Authority outdoor recreation area covering 167,000 acres on a peninsula between TVA's Kentucky Lake and the Army Corps of Engineers' Lake Barkley. The other is Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee near Tiptonville.

Food is what attracts these impressive birds, whose wingspans can reach eight feet. Bald eagles' diet consists largely of fish, and the waters of Kentucky, Barkley, and Reelfoot Lakes are prime hunting areas for eagles that have fled frozen lakes to the north. The shallow waters of 30,000-acre Reelfoot Lake occasionally do freeze for very short periods, but eagles can then forage in the nearby Mississippi River.

Recognizing their distinctive visitors, both the Land Between the Lakes and a state park at Reelfoot Lake offer help for amateur eagle watchers.

The Land Between the Lakes and the Kentucky state parks system have for eight years sponsored a "Weekend With the Eagles." This year's is Feb. 22-24 and includes talks by conservationists and ornithologists, field trips in search of bald eagles, and movies showing eagles in the wild.

"This is our most popular resident program. We ussually have from 250 to 350 people come for the weekend. Every eagle weekend we've been lucky in spotting eagles -- sometimes as many as 30 or 40," said Ann Wright, supervisor of Land Between the Lakes interpretative services section.

Reelfoot Lake, where more than 100 eagles often spend the winter after nesting in southern Ontario, is an intriguing place itself. It was formed in the winter of 1811-12 by a series of earthquakes, and pioneer accounts tell of water from the Mississippi River flowing upstream and into the bottomlands to create the lake. Land that became the lake bed dropped from two to 50 feet below its former level.

Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge covers part of the lake, and Reelfoot Lake State Resort Park encompasses more. From the lakeside lodge at the park, guests have been known to observe eagles that fish for meals while using nearby treetops as vantages.

The park offers a free daily bus tour conducted by a ranger-naturalist. Eagles are at Reelfoot roughly from mid-November through March, and tours continue through March 16. You can drive the same route the tour bus takes in your own car.

"What makes Reelfoot so popular is that often you don't even have to get off the bus to see eagles," said ranger-naturalist Steve Pardue. "Many are accustomed to vehicles and ignore their presence."

Mr. Pardue reported that the Reelfoot population was higher last year than it had been in recent years. "We've had more eagles here early last winter than usual, and many have been young eagles," he said. The winter's total was 184, he noted.

From the time of the country's founding until the middle of this century, bald eagles gradually retreated from man's encroachment. Then, however, the number of eagles began to decline dramatically -- falling 50 to 90 percent in some areas of the lower 48 states.

This was due primarily to the use of DDT and other "persistent" pesticides that concentrate in the fish that bald eagles eat. This causes "weak-shelled" eggs that are easy to break during incubation.

Now that that threat has lessened, man remains the eagle's worst direct enemy. It was 1940 before eagles were protected by federal law, and in 1972 that law was amended to increase punishment for violation to a fine of $5,000 or one year's imprisonment, or both. This followed the shooting from helicopters of nearly 500 bald and golden eagles in Colorado and Wyoming in 1971.

All this makes quiet places such as Reelfoot Lake and Land Between the Lakes that much more appealing. They are places to witness the strength of nature and the majesty of our national symbol -- a symbol that perhaps has been saved from extinction.

Headquarters for LBL's Weekend With the Eagles is Lake Barkley State Resort Park near Cadiz. Registration is $2. A lodge double is about $20. LBL is less than 100 miles northwest of Nashville, Tenn. Information is available by writing Eagle Weekend, Land Between the Lakes, Box 27, Golden Pond, Ky. 42231 or by calling (502) 924-5602.

Reelfoot Lake State Resort Park in Tennessee is about 100 miles north of Memphis.

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