By John Craig—The 50 miles surrounding the little NWA mountain town of Bella Vista is a part-time home to a number of majestic American bald eagles. Chances are pretty good here in “Natures Gem of the Ozarks” that you will not only catch site of them but have the opportunity to watch them as they hunt and play. If you are patient, you will capture a few memorable photographs.
I’ve observed eagles for many, many hours during the 15 years I’ve lived in Bella Vista and I have learned some tricks. It helps if you think like an eagle. They are smart. And wary of humans. In my experience, those two things go hand in hand.
It is no surprise that eagles need lots of space. They are big birds. Their large nests are built close to their food sources, which in this part of the Ozarks will be along in sheltered coves along shore lines of any of Bella Vista’s seven lakes and other bodies of water as you travel even further into the wilderness. If left undisturbed eagles will return year after year to the same nest. I’ve been observing them long enough that I recognize individual birds who return every year.
This is not, however, a bird easily observed.
Think like an eagle.
If you are new to locating and observing these majestic birds, here are a few things to consider and watch for:
(a) Tall dead trees with several limbs that not only provide a good lookout for the eagle but accommodate several birds based on their “pecking” order.
(b) Watch for the eagles in flight early to mid-morning as they make their rounds looking for food. They will be flying in a straight line to each destination to see what, if any, food is available. They can cover several miles in a short period and will usually go to where the last food was found. If nothing is located during these “observation” flights they will normally return to their favorite observation trees to wait and watch.
(c) The bright white of their tail feathers can be seen by the human eye for a considerable distance. The eagles can see them several miles away.
When you do locate eagles there are things you should do and not do for the benefit of the birds. Be patient. Observing the eagles going about their routine will provide you with possible camera opportunities and memories. The eagle, like any other creature has a “comfort zone.” If you enter their zone, they will become very wary and leave the area if they feel threatened.
There are only 9,700 nesting pairs in entire US today. A number of those call Bella Vista, AR home.
As a result of conservation efforts, the bald eagle population has risen from a mere 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to more than 9,700 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states today. Nov 7, 2020. While no longer endangered or threatened, the bald eagle is not a common bird.
The plumage of the immature eagle is a dark brown overlaid with messy white streaking until the fifth or fourth year when it reaches sexual maturity. Young bald eagles are hard to differentiate from golden eagles by color alone.
Eagles are partially migratory depending on many factors, especially food sources. Juveniles explore 100s of miles but tend to return to where they were hatched. Because Bella Vista is surrounded by habitat attractive to both summer breeding and wintering, you will see eagles of differing ages coming and going. Eagles have a life span of around 20 years.
NWA Ozarks lakes don’t freeze in winter and in Bella Vista the lakes are stocked for human convenience so eagles both summer nest and winter in Bella Vista. They are a little less cautious about humans in the winter when not breeding.
Breeding season starts early–in the middle of February.
Look for a road less traveled.
A hundred miles of engineered mountain bike trails attracts many mountain bike riders, hikers, and nature lovers. Those trails are a lot of fun. Within 100 miles of trails you can plan everything from a challenging black diamond ride to a gentle walk with youngsters and a picnic by a waterfall. You, however, want to go where others do not tend to go for fun.
Drive the back roads looking for opportunities to catch eagles at the top of their “observation” tree. Some eagles are confident and will stay while others are not. Park safely and stay in your vehicle. I can just about assure you that in most cases if you attempt to get out of your vehicle to take pictures the eagle will depart the area.
Here is a tip to remember that can work to your benefit. If there are at least two of you, watch where the eagle flies to. It will usually fly to the same tree. One of you get into position near the tree and determine if you will be able to get a good photo when they fly into the tree. For this to work you must remain very still as the eagles will pick up your movements very quickly and change their direction. The other person can stay in the parked vehicle or drive away, fooling the eagle, turn around and come back for the photographer left patiently waiting.
You may have the opportunity to observe an eagle capture fish. It’s quite the sight. Depending on the speed of flight and wind conditions the eagle will glide into position, making the necessary adjustment in speed and elevation in relationship to the fish. The eagle extends its legs which are equipped with razor sharp talons. Sometimes the eagle is fortunate to make the catch on the first pass, however, if not successful the eagle will circle into the wind for another pass. When making contact with the water there is a large splash. It is not uncommon for other eagles in the area to try to steal the bounty. The successful eagle may start to eat the fish in flight and may have to fight another eagle to keep his prize.
Equipment tips for shooting eagles
Photographing this majestic bird is a great thrill. To capture the best photographs, I recommend to use a tripod to eliminate blurred images due to movement. It also helps eliminate fatigue from holding the camera while waiting for the eagle to pose dramatically. My best photos come from using a NIKON D850 with a Nikon 600 mm prime lens. I also attach a 1.4 extender. The average picture is taken at 100 yards or more. Eagles like to perch at the top of a 75-125 feet trees with good visibility and you will need to find your “perch” some distance away in order not to appear like a threat
John Craig inherited his love of wild places. He was born in Wyoming and raised alongside the North Platt River near dozens of small creeks, the plains and mountains. He moved to Arkansas in 1998 and he and his wife, Mary Ann, made Bella Vista their home in 2005.
John is a regular contributor to Discover Bella Vista. He joins those in the Bella Vista community in telling the story of Bella Vista, “Nature’s Gem of the Ozarks.”
You can see more of John’s work on his website: jlcraigphoto.com