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Eagles at Lake Monroe

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Since 2001, Indiana's premier eagle-watching and birding event

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    "Where can I go to see the eagles?" It's a question that is answered hundreds upon hundreds of times throughout the year at Lake Monroe. Unfortunately, the answer is different on almost any day of the year. Where they are today and where they'll be tomorrow is anyone's guess, unless, of course, it's nesting season. From February through June, most of the sightings will be within a mile or two of one of the nest sites. The rest of the year, however, the possibilities are almost endless. But with some luck and a little persistence, along with the right equipment,  your odds of seeing a bald eagle or even a golden eagle in the wild at Lake Monroe can increase dramatically. Here are a few tips:

Equipment     When and Where     What To Look For     Map     Favorite Perches

The Right Stuff

    Lake Monroe is a huge area so views of bald eagles up close are somewhat rare. But with today's modern optics, you might be amazed at how many eagles you can find by standing in just one spot - the right spot - with the right stuff. While spotting scopes are great, a decent pair of 7- or 8-power binoculars will suffice. Some folks go with even more power, 10x or 12x, but then the shakes come into play. The more powerful the binoculars, the more susceptible they are to your own movements, unless, of course, a tripod or monopod is used. There are also binoculars on the market today with image-stabilizing systems built into them to help with this very problem. Also, the field of vision is smaller in the more powerful binoculars, so finding the bird in the frame is sometimes difficult for youngsters. Most experienced birders prefer an 8x binocular for all-around birding activities. It has as much power as you can get without having to worry about holding them steady. It also helps considerably if you are watching other birds at the same time you are looking for eagles. It is very difficult to follow a smaller, faster bird in flight with anything over 8x.

    So what about spotting scopes? There are numerous models on the market today, with some being very affordable. There are others that are way out on the other end of the scale as well. For most purposes, two types of spotting scopes are the most popular among birders. One is 15x - 45x and the other is 20x - 60x. Notice that both are "zoom" scopes. You can have the eyepiece dialed down to 15x to originally find the bird, and then crank it up to 45x for a close-up look. The important thing to remember when purchasing a spotting scope with a zoom eyepiece is the "loss of light" factor. Many scopes that give you a fabulous look at 15x don't allow enough light in at 45x to give you anywhere near as good a look. At a 60x setting, it can be even worse. There is also some differentiation between birders as to whether you should have a straight or angled eyepiece. Down-angled eyepieces make watching birds high in flight or perched near the tops of trees much easier on your neck muscles. With long looks, however, it is usually easier to scan for birds when you are using a scope with a straight-line look - it's just a more natural feel to many.

    Two other pieces of equipment should be mentioned - the first of which is a tripod. If you are going to use a spotting scope, you'll have to have one. If you are going to use some of the more powerful binoculars, you might wish you had one. The number one rule with tripods is: Don't skimp! The best binoculars or spotting scopes in the world give you terrible views when used with a poor tripod. There should be next to no "give" in the legs of any tripod or monopod. Another important consideration is the head mounted on the tripod - it's what is actually attached to your scope. Make sure the movement in the head is fluid without being sloppy, while at the same time being somewhat tight without being sticky. You'll notice it if instead of moving the scope smoothly from side to side or up and down, it sticks and jerks its way across the landscape. And when moving from side-to-side, it shouldn't be so loose as to drop down at the same time. Some folks prefer a head with directional handles, others prefer a swivel-ball mount. Either one is perfectly fine as long as you are comfortable with it and it moves the way you want it to - not too easily and not too hard.

    The final piece of equipment has nothing to do with getting decent looks at birds - it's more of a creature comfort thing that a lot of people fail to notice until it's too late - the binocular strap. No matter how many layers of clothes you have between you and the binocular strap, you'll notice the "neck strain" from a strap that is too small. Spend the extra few dollars and get a good wide strap with some elasticity to it. Your neck will thank you.

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The Right Spot

    Now that you have all the best gear you can afford, where do you go. Well, as mentioned before, eagles are liable to show up just about anywhere on Lake Monroe. But let's try to narrow down the search somewhat.

    Sightings change considerably depending on the time of year. A database of eagle sightings shows that sightings increase dramatically beginning in the fall and drop off just as dramatically when spring arrives.

























    Some of the numbers can be explained quite easily. First of all, sightings are much less frequent during the summer because there is a lot of traffic on the lake and in the surrounding areas, so the eagles are more secretive. Also, the only eagles on the lake are the resident nesting pairs - 3 in 2004. During the winter months, however, there are many more eagles on the lake and a great deal more opportunity to see them as evidenced by the spike in eagle sightings that begins in late September and does not begin to drop off until the first of April.

    Why is there such a big decrease in eagle sightings during December? It's simply because not only do the number of eagles seen decrease, but so does the number of people out looking for them. The last half of the month sees very few birders coming to Lake Monroe, except for the annual Christmas Bird Count, which is held the weekend before Christmas this year. These numbers have purposely been left out of this table. In 2003, for example, more than 60 people had sightings of more than 50 eagles - surely some of them were duplicates and, therefore, not good data to use in this table.

    Now that we know when to look for them, where do we go to find them? The answer to this is, in a nutshell, anywhere - that is, anywhere that affords you a good look at as much of the lake as possible. But still, that doesn't guarantee a sighting. If the lake is frozen, the eagles tend to congregate at the south end of the causeway and at the southern end of the lake, in the general vicinity of the Fourwinds. If the lake is free of ice, however, the eagles will congregate in the northern reaches where the water is much shallower and, therefore, it is presumably an easier area for them to catch fish. Unfortunately much of the northern reaches are inaccessible by vehicle and otherwise out of sight. Even so, there are places to go to increase your chances of seeing bald eagles in the wild. The following is a map of those places and a listing of some of the eagles' favorite perches within those places.

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What Am I Looking For?

    Bald eagles do not get their distinctive white heads and tails until they reach four to six years old. Until then, they are basically big brown birds. If you see one up close, however, you will notice that they have a lot of mottling in their feathers. Under the right conditions, you can tell from these mottle patterns what plumage they are in: juvenile, Basic I, II, III, or IV. The Basic IV birds are known as subadults and the next time they molt their feathers, they will have the white head and tail that we all look for on a bald eagle.

    These different plumages can make it easy to find the birds, but they can make it much more difficult at the same time. If you looking along the shores of Lake Monroe for an adult bald eagle, the white head and tail will show up very well against the backdrop of the brown and gray trees on the hillsides. However, if there is snow on the ground, the white head and tail will blend in perfectly with the backdrop of trees and snow. But at that time, the immature birds stick out as a big brown blob in a sea of white.

    In flight, bald eagles can be picked out easily from the other large birds that frequent the skies around Lake Monroe - the turkey vultures. When turkey vultures soar, their wings are in a sort of a "V" shape, with the wing tips higher than the body of the bird. Bald eagles, on the other hand, soar with their wings straight out to the sides - a very flat look compared to turkey vultures. Turkey vultures also have a sort of a wobbly flight, whereas bald eagles have a much more stable presence in flight.

    Two other birds are worth mentioning: black vultures and golden eagles. Black vultures fly with the wings straight out to the sides like bald eagles do, but they are much smaller than either bald eagles or turkey vultures. Golden eagles present a real challenge, even to some experienced birders. Close inspection of the undersides of the wings will tell you if you have an immature golden eagle or an immature bald eagle. However, due to their scarcity in this part of North America, golden eagles are very hard to find around Lake Monroe. For every one sighting of a golden eagle, you'll have a hundred or more bald eagle sightings.

    One last hint: Bald eagles will regularly sit on the edge of the ice! If the lake is partially frozen, look along the edges of the ice for the bald eagle, and even the occasional golden eagle, waiting for some dinner to jump up in front of them.

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Favorite Perches

E1 - Pine Grove boat ramp - Although you cannot see very far to the east, eagles will come around that point as they travel down the lake. There are also a couple of good perches along the shoreline before the point that attracts them. This is also a good spot to find eagles when the lake is just beginning to freeze or in the process of thawing in the late winter.

E2 - Cutright Loop - The loop at the end of the Cutright area is an excellent place to look for both perching eagles and eagles in flight. Most of the golden eagles are seen in flight to the east of this location.

E3 - Cutright boat ramp - This location allows a good view of the shoreline across the lake. Afternoons seem to be a favorite time for eagles to perch in that area.

E4 - Paynetown Point - From this spot you can look back toward Cutright and find eagles perching almost anywhere along the eastern shoreline - especially in trees nearer the causeway. With a good spotting scope, you can also see three to four miles of shoreline from this location. It is not uncommon to find six or eight eagles when scanning from this location.

E5 - Jaeger Point - At the far back end of the campground, this point affords a great view of both the east and west shorelines of the "main" lake. Look for them especially around the City of Bloomington water intake structure (large concrete structure) on the west wide.

E6 - Moore's Creek SRA - The Moore's Creek area might be a little tougher than other places to get to but if the eagles are in the south end of the "main" lake, this location will give you the closest views.

E7 - Fairfax Peninsula - After walking a couple of hundred yards, you can look to the north through "The Narrows" and spot eagles in flight. Another great place to watch is the entrance to the Ramp Creek bay to the north. One of the resident pairs has a nest back in that bay (not visible without a boat) and they are seen quite regularly flying in and out of the bay.

E8 - Fairfax Beach - While at the Peninsula make sure to look to the east from the beach. Also, if the lake is frozen, the Fourwinds Resort and Marina has "bubblers" that keep open water around their boats. Don't think for a second that eagles will not perch directly on the docks!

E9 - Fairfax Point - From here you can start to see "around the bend." Numerous eagle sightings have been from this point looking straight across to the west at the entrances to the small coves.

E10 - Spillway - This is the only place from which you can see the south end of the Fairfax SRA. Eagles can be found perched in trees along either the near or far shorelines.

E11 - Dam - Look for perched eagles on both sides of the dam. If the lake is iced over, numerous eagles have been spotted perched in trees along Salt Creek below the dam.

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Bald eagle portrait image by Hammond Photography - Jeff Hammond, Photographer; Laura Hammond, Business Manager. Other photos courtesy of Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

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