Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… today, it will be quite close to home, and what I am seeking is something truly majestic and powerful. Those two words aptly describe the avian species which I am hoping to see and photograph. These birds may be easier to locate in January since the trees are devoid of leaves. It is the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucophalus) that I am hoping to see, and if I am fortunate enough to find one, I may even see two. We have been blessed to see eagles much more frequently here in the Northeast. The bald eagle doesn’t migrate and will spend much of its time near open water hunting for its preferred food, which is fish. A bald eagle is a raptor which means they are strictly carnivores (meat eaters). While fish is a preferred food they will also eat small mammals and birds. Waterfowl, especially ducks of all species, are choice foods. However, when open waters freeze over, another food source for the eagles is road kill or even a larger mammal, which may have died due to starvation.

Raptors, in addition to being carnivores, share many other features in common. The female raptor is much larger than the male. She is able to protect her eggs and nestlings from all intruders. Unless the male and female are within close proximity, it is difficult to distinguish which one you are seeing. Both the male and female have dark brown torso feathers, white head and neck feathers, and white tail feathers. They both have a yellow bill and cere (fleshy area between the bill and face). The cere has oval-shaped openings that are called nares. The nares are the entrance to their respiratory system. Air passes through their lungs twice within each breathing cycle. The adult eagles have light yellow eyes. An immature eagle doesn’t have the same features as an adult until it reaches age five.

Within about four months after hatching from the egg, but shortly before it fledges (becomes ready to leave the nest), an eaglet grows and changes its appearance three times. The hatchlings emerge with pale gray down, but within a few weeks, they molt into thicker, darker gray down. When they have grown in both height and weight and are ready to leave their nest, they will experience another molt. At this time, they have mostly brown feathers combined with some white feathers. It takes about five years for the immature to resemble the mature adults. The immature eagle has brown eyes and their eyes will also change to yellow when they reach the adult stage.

The average female bald eagle is thirty-five to thirty-seven inches in height, and the male is thirty to thirty-four inches tall. The wing span of the female varies from seventy-nine inches to ninety inches, and the male wing span is seventy-two inches to eighty-five inches. Eagles glide and soar using updrafts and air currents. They can soar for long periods of time, hunting for prey. In addition to the wings, their tail is also important for flight and stabilizing, especially when diving or swooping after prey. Their tail also acts like a brake when they land. Even though eagles are not the fastest fliers of the raptors, their ability to glide and soar for hours is a big bonus while hunting and uses much less energy.

You probably have heard the saying “light as a feather,” which is also true as feathers are very light. The eagle’s skeleton is also very light yet also extremely strong. The eagle’s bones are hollow, and its skeleton actually weighs less than all its feathers combined. However, the strength of its skeleton allows the eagle to attack, kill, and carry off its prey.

Eagles like other raptors (hawks and owls) are mostly solitary birds; however you may have seen two eagles sitting on the same branch. This only occurs during their mating season. The larger female will initiate the courtship and mating. An eagle will generally use the same nest year after year to lay her eggs unless the nest was destroyed. When there is a successful hatching of the eaglets, both parents will have taken turns incubating the eggs, and both will also take turns feeding the chicks. The incubation lasts between thirty-four to thirty-six days. Fish, small mammals, and waterfowl are some of the foods brought to feed the eaglets. Eagles eat flesh and bones at all ages for calcium. The high acidity in an eagle’s stomach allows them to eat road kill and carrion without the risk of bacterial contamination. Adult eagles can consume one-half to three-fourths of a pound of food in one day. However, when rearing its young, it can eat a one-pound fish in as little as four minutes. They may even gorge themselves and then not eat anything for a few days. Just like owls, eagles digest food in their crop and eliminate the undigested body parts (hair, etc.) as pellets.

An eagle’s eyesight is outstanding. They have the ability to see both forward and to the side at the same time. Although their hearing is not as acute as an owl, they do have a good sense of hearing. Eagles have a life expectancy of about twenty years and will generally mate for life. However, if a mate should die, the surviving mate will generally find a new partner.

Bald eagles were removed from both the Endangered and Threatened Species List on June 28, 2007. Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the impetus that brought about the change in our thinking and usage of pesticides. DDT and other similar pesticides were found to change the birds’ calcium metabolism. While incubating the thin-shelled eggs, the eagles’ body weight would actually crush the eggs. DDT was banned almost completely in the United States in 1972. The eagle population started recovering quickly.

I truly hope that you will have an opportunity to see and photograph these majestic and powerful birds during their nesting time this winter and into spring. They should be sitting on their nest right now, and the eaglets will go from hatching to fledging in mid to late April. I hope to see you where you wander.


Joan Herrmann has taught and done programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers for about 38 years as a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.

In 2007, she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, she did a week-long summer program at BROEP with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC).

Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at jmhphoto8442@gmail.com.