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Bald eagles vacation in Utah

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 3:29 a.m. MDT

Bald eagles perch at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. During the winter bald eagles are largely scavengers, feasting on deer and elk winter kill. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Bald eagles perch at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. During the winter bald eagles are largely scavengers, feasting on deer and elk winter kill. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

The bald eagle was first taken off the endangered, then the threatened list and is now considered to be in sufficient numbers to be off the list entirely. Its numbers have been climbing steadily over the years, which is something bird watchers here in Utah would concur with.

Every year, come November, hundreds of bald eagles fly into Utah and stay until the ice starts to melt in March.

Estimates flutter around 1,000 birds vacationing in Utah in the winter. Last year, more than 200 bald eagles were counted at the Farmington Bay management area and the year before between 350 and 400.

Utah is one of the top 10 choices for winter stops for bald eagles, and some years the state has been among the top five.

Bob Walters, watchable wildlife program director for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, explained that "Utah is situated at a favorable latitude for eagles. What that translates to is relatively mild winters and adequate food."

Bald eagles are stopping in Utah on their spring migration. (James Donald, Thirteen/WNET) Bald eagles are stopping in Utah on their spring migration. (James Donald, Thirteen/WNET)

The birds fly down from the north, all the way from Alaska and Canada and Northern states, and then fly back when winter ends.

A few stay. Last summer there were 11 nesting pairs known to have remained in Utah through the summer.

"There could, of course, be more that we are simply not aware of," said Walters.

"Back in the 1970s, when I first arrived here, there were one or two nesting pairs. What we're seeing is they're coming back from being extremely scarce to a point where they appear to be recovering."

Farmington Bay has become a popular viewing spot for bald eagles because of its accessibility and because there are a lot of birds, both large and small. Mainly, however, people come to see bald eagles, which can have up to a 7-foot wingspan, and with their contracting white-feathered heads and dark bodies, and steely stare, are intriguing birds.

A bald eagle perches on bare branches at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) A bald eagle perches on bare branches at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Other popular viewing spots in the winter include the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Willard Bay, areas near Henefer and Morgan and the Flaming Gorge area. There are also five sites that were recently manned by wildlife officers during Bald Eagle Day (see list).

Actually, there are quite a few bald eagles in other parts of the state, Walters pointed out. "We've had high numbers in the Southern Region, around Beaver and Cedar City, all the way up along the Wasatch Front. The Great Salt Lake is so massive, though, I would say that it is the major corridor for eagles."

Utah also has a large number of golden eagles. And, where bald eagles are transient birds, golden eagles tend to be permanent residents. And, despite what people may think, said Walter, "The two are not close. Once in a while you'll see a single golden with bald eagles, but it's rare. They're competitors for food. In fact, it's not uncommon for a group of bald eagles to steal a kill from a golden eagle."

Mike Phillipa of American Fork uses binoculars to see a group of eagles at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on Sunday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Mike Phillipa of American Fork uses binoculars to see a group of eagles at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on Sunday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Eagles were first placed on the endangered list in 1978 after their numbers fell dangerously low, a result of diminishing prey, loss of habitat, the use of lead pellets used to hunt waterfowl and then ingested by the birds, and the wide use of DDT pesticide, which reduced the amount of calcium in the birds' eggshells.

It was estimated that in 1963 there were only 417 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Now it is estimated there are more than 7,000.

One of the main food sources for the birds here in Utah are carp found in the marshes along the Great Salt Lake. But they will also eat everything from rabbits to waterfowl to even domestic animals.

During the winter, bald eagles are largely scavengers, feasting on deer and elk winter kill.

Mike Phillipa of American Fork, center, watches eagle with binoculars. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Mike Phillipa of American Fork, center, watches eagle with binoculars. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Even though taken off the endangered list, eagles will still be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act.

The nice part about viewing eagles is that as long as people keep a reasonable distance, the birds will remain still and even fly close by, so visitors are able to get excellent views of the giant birds.

And the best time to view bald eagles in large numbers, said Walters, "Is right now and on into March."

To see the greatest number of eagles, plan on visiting between 2 and 4 p.m.

"In midafternoon, the eagles start flying to trees to roost for the night," Walters said. "If you want to see the greatest number of eagles, mid- to late afternoon is usually the best time."

Max Wolfey, left, Bobby Wolfey, Katy Phillipa and other eagle watchers scan for eagles at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on Sunday. Bald eagles are stopping in Utah on their spring migration. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Max Wolfey, left, Bobby Wolfey, Katy Phillipa and other eagle watchers scan for eagles at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on Sunday. Bald eagles are stopping in Utah on their spring migration. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Viewing sites and how to get there

Fountain Green State Fish Hatchery, located east of Nephi.

Split Mountain/Green River, located north of Jensen and below the Dinosaur Quarry in Dinosaur National Monument. It is also possible to view other wildlife, such as prairie falcons, hawks, mule deer, river otters, pheasants, turkeys, sandhill cranes, porcupines, mergansers and Canada geese.

Rush Lake Ranch, located on the Minersville highway, state road 130, about 12 miles north of Cedar City.

Salt Creek Waterfowl Management Area, located about 10 miles northwest of Corinne. To reach the WMA, take Exit 365 off of I-15 and travel west to 6800 West, then head north to 6800 North and then west to the management area.

Max Wolfey, left, Bobby Wolfey and Katy Phillipa scan for eagles Sunday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Max Wolfey, left, Bobby Wolfey and Katy Phillipa scan for eagles Sunday. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, located on the west side of Farmington at 1325 W. Glover Lane (925 South). Take exit 325 off I-15. Turn left on Park Lane and travel west to Clark Lane at the first traffic light and turn right. Travel west to the 1525 West, and turn South to Glover Lane, and turn right to 1700 West.

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