Yep… Those are Bald Eagles You are Seeing
After Hurricane Ivan devastated the Pensacola area in 2004, my son was working to repair docks in local waterways. One day, after working on a project in Bayou Texar (near Pensacola Bay), he came by our house and said that he had seen a bald eagle fly over. My wife and I both responded with amazement but at the same time were thinking… “Yea right”. A few days later, we were sitting on the back porch (we live near Bayou Texar) and glancing up we saw a huge bird flying over… you guessed it… a bald eagle. We both looked at each other and just shook our heads saying “did you just see?… yep, that was a bald eagle”. It was totally cool!
In the 1970’s I worked for a local chemical plant on Escambia Bay that had a bird sanctuary on the property. Occasionally a bald eagle would appear during the winter months but it was not annually, and it was a real treat to see it. However, since Ivan sightings in the panhandle have become quite common. Folks are seeing them over Pensacola Bay, Perdido Bay, Garcon area of Santa Rosa County, Gulf Breeze peninsula, almost everywhere! I actually saw three flying together over Big Sabine on Pensacola Beach recently. They are actually now nesting in the area.
These are large birds, 30-40” long with a 7-8 feet wing span, and hard to misidentify – everyone knows a bald eagle. However, the juveniles do not have the distinct white head and tail or the brilliant yellow beak. Rather they are dark brown with possible white spots on their wings, and the beak is darker. The mature color change occurs in 5-6 years. Their diet is mostly fish but they will take small birds and mammals. They are also scavengers, including road-kill, and will “pirate” captured food from other birds. Observations support that ospreys and bald eagles do not really get along.
Bald eagles tend to migrate between their breeding grounds in Canada and those of the Gulf Coast. The migrants are typically non-breeding individuals. Breeding ones tend to remain in their breeding areas year round. As of 2014, Florida has the highest densities of southern breeding populations in the lower 48 states, about 1500 nests. Most return to Florida in the fall for nest building. Their nests are typically in forested areas near waterways. They prefer the tallest trees. The nests are quite large; the record in Florida was 9.5 feet in diameter. They typically lay one clutch of 1-3 eggs but may lay a second clutch if the first is unsuccessful. The young remain in the nests until they can fly – usually April or May. Wintertime is a good time to view these animals in our area.
Their numbers plummeted for a variety of reasons, including the introduction of DDT, and they were placed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Endangered Species list. DDT was banned in 1972 and listing them on the ESL protected from them from poaching; they have since recovered. Today they are no longer on the Endangered Species list and were removed from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissions (FWC) imperiled species list. However, they are still protected federally by the Bald / Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Protection Act; they are also protected in Florida by state law.
Potential viewing locations can be found on FWC’s bald eagles nest location site. https://public.myfwc.com/FWRI/EagleNests/nestlocator.aspx
This site provides known locations between 2012 and 2014. Recent surveys were conducted between 2015 and 2016 in several panhandle counties but those locations have not been posted yet. For those in the Pensacola area, there are four permanently injured bald eagles at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida. The public is welcome to visit the sanctuary Wednesday through Saturday from 12:00 – 3:30PM (self-guided).
105 North S Street, Pensacola FL 32505
For more information: