There is some big news from Boerne Birders! They recently saw an immature bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) last Saturday at Boerne Lake. As far as they can tell, this is a first for Boerne Lake and southern Kendall County. Several birders got a good look at the bird as it flew across the Lake. Delmar Cain first spotted an unusually large bird over the water and Tom Inglet got an especially good view through his spotting scope. Jerry McFarlen thinks it is most likely a second-year bird because there was some white on its back near the head and no light color on the head.
There is a lot of speculation with regard to what the bald eagle is going to do next. Will this bird find Boerne Lake to be a good source of winter food and stay around for a while? Will it be the beginning of more bald eagles wintering here? Might it eventually mate and nest in beautiful Boerne? By the way, bald eagles usually pair bond in their 4th year and then breed and nest for the first time in their 5th year.
Bald eagles are about 29 to 42 inches long, can weigh 7 to 15 pounds, and have a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet. They have a life span of up to 40 years in the wild. Bald eagles are in a group of birds known as fish-eagles and they are thought to be more closely related to kites than to the golden eagle. When it comes to eating, bald eagles are opportunists that catch and eat surface fish but also rabbits, turtles, coots, and carrion. To survive, they must live near permanent water.
The U.S. Congress chose this species to be our National Emblem in 1782. They selected this bird rather than the golden eagle because the bald eagle is a genuine American species living only in North American. Whereas, the golden eagle is cosmopolitan and used on the seal and flag of several European countries.
Ornithologists estimate that the bald eagle population was between 300,000 and 500,000 during the early 1700s. In spite, of this species’ National Emblem status, the bald eagle and other birds of prey have been fatally persecuted throughout the United States. They have suffered from mass shooting, use of crop pesticides, destruction of habitat, and contamination of waterways and food sources by a wide range of poisons and pollutants. By the early 1960s, the bald eagle population was down to less than 500 pairs and considered endangered.
Strong endangered species laws and the ban of DDT as well as private, state and federal conservation efforts have brought the Bald Eagle population in the “lower 48 states” back to over 10,000 breeding pairs in 2007. Happily, today our national symbol is no longer considered an endangered or threatened species.
A Bald Eagle on Boerne Lake is consistent with its national recovery. Boerne Lake is good habitat with plenty of water for food and tall trees for roost and nest. Eagles could use it for winter-feeding, nesting territory or year-round residence. Now that we know at least one Bald Eagle is in our area, residents are encouraged to keep looking for them. Keep your binoculars and bird book with you. Watch for a big, dark, vulture sized or larger bird. Bald eagles fly on broad, flat wings, soar with their wings nearly flat and their wing beats are rather stiff and shallow.
Sue Wiedenfeld keeps the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) records for Kendall County and she has only one CBC sighting, which was in January 1994. Her first record for wintering bald eagles in western Kerr County was in 1986 and she has seen wintering bald eagles north of Leakey, Real County in 1987, 1990, 1992, 1995 and 2004. She also reports hearing of bald eagles on a ranch in northwestern Kendall County, where there is a large lake-like pond.
The nearest bald eagle nest is located in Llano County, where a nest is in a tree right above the Llano River and within 130 yards of state Highway 29. The pair has nested in this tree since 2004 and appear to be very good parents. They have reared successfully at least one fledgling every year.
Dale Schmidt, TPWD wildlife biologist for Llano County, tells me that he has seen bald eagles in that area fairly regularly since he arrived there in 1983. He also says that bald eagles require a large territory and that adults chase fledglings out of their territory before they breed the next year. Sightings have become so common around Llano in recent years that he believes the area to be pretty well saturated. Last year a pair was seen regularly right in the town of Llano.
It is not unreasonable to think that the Boerne Lake eagle could be from the Llano crop and it might decide to stay in Boerne. On the other hand, it could be a “northern bird” hatched in cold country, such as Wisconsin or Canada, and wintering here only to return to its home area in late February. Time will tell.