The Eagles Have Landed In Tennessee
I scanned distant treetops on a cold January day nearly 30 years ago at Reelfoot Lake State Park in hopes of spotting flashy white heads of bald eagles that had migrated south for better winter fishing.
The sun peeked out from a cloud and suddenly a huge shadow passed right in front of me. All eyes, including mine, were turned to the sky as a handsome bald eagle flew only 15 feet above us. You could’ve heard a feather drop.
To this day I relish the breathtaking moment I saw my first bald eagle in the wild.
And to think, we almost lost the chance to ever see them again.
The bald eagle population plummeted during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s largely due to effects of DDT, a widely used pesticide that thinned and doomed their eggs. Endangered nationwide, not a single eaglet was seen in Tennessee between 1961 and 1983.
In 1980 a plan was hatched to transport young eaglets from nests in Alaska where bald eagles were relatively abundant to new homes in Tennessee.
Large caged nesting platforms called hacking towers were built on Reelfoot, Barkley, Cheatham, Chickamauga, Dale Hollow, Douglas and South Holston Lakes. Because bald eagles return to the same nests year after year, it was hoped eaglets would imprint on their hacking tower locations and return to the same area to breed as adults.
Today, about 175 nesting pairs of bald eagles are found statewide thanks to a 1972 ban on DDT and Tennessee’s successful hacking program, coordinated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, involving multiple agencies and scores of dedicated volunteers.
Winter is the perfect time to see bald eagles when hundreds of northern migrants join year round breeding residents.
The largest numbers in the state are found at Reelfoot Lake State Park near Tiptonville where naturalists and park rangers lead daily bald eagle and waterfowl bus or van tours at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on weekends from early January through the end of February.
Based on personal experience it’s the best $5 you’ll ever spend. Saturdays during the winter eagle season the park hosts free guest speaker programs at 7 p.m.
February 1-3 the 9th Annual Reelfoot Lake Eagle Festival offers guided bus and van tours, programs for all ages, art and photography contests, storytelling, displays, vendors, live birds of prey programs and sunrise photography tours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Activities and registration begin Friday at 4 p.m.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge has free van tours departing from the Refuge office in Union City on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 a.m. and noon through February 28.
Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area has van tours to view bald eagles and migrating waterfowl scheduled most weekends through early March. Or reserve your spot, relax and enjoy brunch during a birding cruise aboard a luxury yacht.
The 19th annual Dale Hollow Lake Eagle Watch is scheduled for January 19 and January 26. Advance reservations are required and are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis for the free open-air barge tours conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rangers and staff.
Be sure to dress for the weather and call ahead for reservations for bald eagle tours. They fill up quickly!
Let me know where you’ve seen bald eagles in Tennessee this year.