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A good time to watch for eagles

Bald eagles usually migrate south in October so be on the lookout for these majestic birds

Autumn is a good time to watch for raptors such as eagles, but sometimes it can be confusing as to which species one is seeing, especially if the bird is a juvenile one. Manitoba has both the golden eagle and the better-known bald eagle.

My husband and I have seen both species this fall — golden eagles in Riding Mountain Park (flying above Lake Audy) and bald eagles in a variety of places. The two eagles in these photos were both seen in autumn. The adult one was flying south of Melita a couple of years ago, and the immature eagle was near Asessippi Provincial Park this year in early September.

immature bald eagle on a fence post

Immature bald eagle.
photo: Donna Gamache

The adult bald eagle has the easily recognizable white head and tail, but the immature bird is a mottled dark brown, with white streaks. It will usually keep this mottled colour until its fifth year (occasionally the fourth) when it reaches maturity. The head and tail gradually turn white. As the picture shows, the head of this bird is partially white, as is the tail, so we assumed it was a couple of years old, probably more. The beak of an immature bald eagle is also less yellow, sometimes almost black in the youngest birds. This one is mostly a dull yellow, again indicating it may be approaching maturity.

An adult bald eagle will measure about 70 to 102 cm (28 to 40 inches) with the female typically being somewhat larger than the male. Wingspan can range up to two metres or more.

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You may have noticed more eagles in recent years. In the early ’70s bald eagles were considered endangered, a result of hunting, loss of habitat and the use of pesticides such as DDT. These chemicals are ingested by eagles when they eat fish or other scavenged animals, and result in weakened eggshells, thus limiting the birds’ reproductive rate. Restrictions in DDT use since 1972 and laws against shooting the birds have resulted in their numbers rebounding, and their status has been upgraded to “threatened” or “of special concern,” depending on individual provinces.

Bald eagles usually migrate south during October, returning in April. In Manitoba, they are particularly noticeable along large river valleys, such as the Red River and Pembina River, or along lakeshores. Another place to be on the lookout is close to highways, where the eagles may sit in trees while watching for roadkill.

Spring is usually considered the best time to watch for migrating eagles, but it is still worthwhile to watch in fall for these majestic birds.

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