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Eagle Watch

When my wife and I head off somewhere in a vehicle, I’m usually quick to grab the passenger seat, and for good reason — I like to gaze around, looking for whatever wildlife I can spot as we head down the road. I’m always looking for turkeys, deer and other wildlife, including winged critters flying overhead or perched in a tree.

Of course, when checking the sky for large flying birds, one of the most interesting sightings is that of a bald eagle; most interesting probably because I and a lot of others remember a time when such a sighting was extremely rare. These days sightings of eagles are not all that unusual, but I’m still surprised sometimes when people tell me they rarely ever see an eagle.

Hardly a week or two goes by when I don’t spot at least one or more eagles as I travel the local area, but I’ll be honest — I’m looking for them, and I have tried to educate myself as to what to look for when I spot a large bird in flight.

I suspect that when a lot of people think of seeing an eagle, they right away look for the white head and white tail; that’s the case if you are looking at a mature eagle, but not so for immature eagles.

Immature eagles are brown, mottled with white on their wings and body; full adult plumage, that bright white head, and tail may not show up entirely until the fifth year.

Bear in mind, too, that a golden eagle may occasionally show up in Pennsylvania; although similar in size and flight, mature and immature goldens have rich, dark brown plumage with gold-tipped feathers on the head and neck. When viewing the underside of an immature golden, you may spot a white band at the base of the tail and a white band at the base of the wing tips.

Some other things you might want to look for to help you identify that large bird flying overhead is the shape of the tail.

Eagles are in the same taxonomic category as hawks, with broad wings and broad, rounded tails.

Something else to look for when gazing at a flying bird is the flight pattern or “how” it flies. Eagles are no doubt sometimes mistaken for our common turkey vulture when flying high overhead, but vultures will soar with wings held above the horizontal, forming a V-pattern, and the vultures often rock and tilt unsteadily in the air. Eagles’ wings have a more horizontal pattern and are more stable while soaring.

Another large bird that is possibly sometimes mistaken for an eagle is the osprey. Ospreys, like eagles, can often be found soaring over lakes and streams in search of the same prey as eagles; they both like fish and will often drop down to the surface to grab a meal. While fishing on several nearby lakes, my fishing companions and I have often seen both eagles and ospreys soaring and diving and often times perched in trees overlooking the lake.

The osprey is a bit smaller than the eagle, and the head is white with a black patch across each cheek. In flight, the wings are more crooked, and black appears on the underside of the wingtips and along the back of the wing. In-flight ospreys flap more than they sail; wingbeats are slow and deep.

Hopefully, this will make identifying an eagle, especially one in flight, a bit easier. Of course, if you are the one doing the looking, have your partner or a friend do the driving.

In the meantime, this past weekend, while my wife and I were on the way to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to watch wrestling and I spotted three eagles at different locations along the Susquehanna River. Keep your eyes open.