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Last updated: Mon. Jun. 02, 2008 - 10:48 am EDT

In search of eagles

Nearby nest offers spectacular view of recently endangered birds

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Fast facts on bald eagles

A large raptor, the bald eagle has a wingspread of about 7 feet. Adults have a dark brown body and wings, white head and tail and a yellow beak. Juveniles are mostly brown with white mottling on the body, tail and undersides of wings. Adult plumage usually is obtained by the sixth year. In flight, the bald eagle often soars or glides with the wings held at a right angle to the body.

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Bald eagles were removed from the state's list of endangered species last month, but the huge raptors are still uncommon enough that a nesting pair along the Wabash River south of Huntington is becoming a tourist attraction.

They aren't the only bald eagles that have appeared in northeast Indiana, but they're exceptionally easy for casual birdwatchers to reach. Even people who've never gone looking for birds before but want to see this national symbol up close are taking the short walk necessary to find these eagles.

Huntington's Evergreen Park includes a paved walking path that follows the Wabash for part of its course. Cut through about 25 yards of woods along the river, and you're on a high bluff overlooking the dead tree across the Wabash where the eagles nest.

“It's causing quite a stir in Smallville,” joked Huntington Mayor Steve Updike. He said he's been hearing about the bald eagles' nest for about 10 weeks.

Word-of-mouth reports are spreading news of the unusually accessible eagles. People throughout Huntington compare notes on their eagle observations. Now visitors looking for the eagles are coming from beyond Huntington County.

“We're getting all kinds of people going out there,” said Rose Meldrum, executive director of the Huntington County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “They can't get lost because it's a loop,” she said, referring to the walking trail at Evergreen Park. She said her office gets at least a call a day from people who want to find their way to the eagles.

On comfortable weekends and early evenings, steady traffic flows to and from the bluff above the Wabash. Sometimes a dozen or more people at a time gather quietly, watching through binoculars or snapping photos.

The vantage offers a particularly clear view. It's perhaps 150 feet from the eagles' nest - a bowl of interwoven sticks and natural padding about 3 feet across. If it's like most bald eagles' nests, it is strong enough to support a grown person - certainly more than enough to hold adult birds that weigh 8 to 15 pounds.

One of the birds there has the white head feathers and yellow beak of a fully grown adult. Another is younger, with mostly brown plumage. As for the eaglets in the nest, accounts vary.

Some people say there are two recently hatched birds in there. On a visit last week, a reporter and photographer from The News-Sentinel saw only one “eaglet” there - a large bird that appeared unable to fly yet. It had the brown feathers, with considerable white mottling, characteristic of very young eagles. That might well have been a recently hatched eagle. An Indiana University Web site on bald eagles says they typically learn to fly between 9 and 14 weeks of age then leave the nest and their parents for good at about 4 months of age.

Barely more than 20 years ago, the state's Department of Natural Resources started reintroducing young bald eagles to Indiana in hopes they would start establishing nests here. Seventy-three birds were released in the state from 1985 to 1989. When the first successful nests were found in Indiana in 1991, it had been more than 90 years since nesting eagles had disappeared from the state.

“It's an incredible success story,” said Gary Tieben, president of the Stockbridge Audubon Society and dean of the school of arts and sciences at the University of Saint Francis.

Tieben remembers taking an ornithology class at Ohio State in 1964. The class went to see a bald eagle nest along the shore of Lake Erie near Cedar Point. At that time, Tieben and his fellow students were told that was the last active bald-eagle nest around Lake Erie.

“It's amazing to me that they're doing so well, and they're all over the place,” Tieben said.


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