Aquatic Eagle Paradise
- Wednesday, 8 February 2017
- Barr Lake State Park, Adams County, Colorado
- Time 0718
- Elevation – 5098’
- Soft breeze, cloudy to blue skies, 41℉
I make my way to another one of the 42 state parks in Colorado. This time it is Barr Lake State Park. The park is popular for birders and fishermen and boasts of a massive lake which is encompassed by an 8.8 mile trail.
I read where the Bald Eagles are en masse at the park right now, so I decide this is a great place to come spend an hour. I park at the visitor’s center and take a very short walk out to the boardwalk that leads to a covered platform.
The forecast calls for stiff winds throughout the day but just past sunrise there is merely a light breeze. I am on the south shore of the lake gazing north. The lake was originally a natural depression and in 1908 a dam was created combining two smaller reservoirs into what is now Barr Lake. I can see the front range mountains from here on the prairie but they are partially shrouded in clouds, prohibiting a view of the Continental Divide. The sun has broken the horizon off the back of my right shoulder but my attention is on the ice.
The lake is not completely frozen and is not at its full capacity as evidenced by the rocks directly underneath the platform I am standing on. Yet, only a few more feet away there is a mix of ice and open water. Canadian geese are both on my left and off to my right. Over the next hour they fly in and out of the area like planes landing and taking off.
In a stand of trees a few hundred yards east of me an immature bald eagle roosts. He appears to be busy either eating or preening himself, but at the moment I am overwhelmed by the number of eagles on the ice. I use my 8×42 binoculars to begin to check out the majestic birds. I get so busy glassing the ice that I miss the fact that the immature baldie has vacated his perch. I mentally kick myself because my camera is not of the type to get photos of the eagles that are hundreds of yards and miles away from my viewing spot. I have missed the best opportunity for a decent photo of one of the eagles.
Before I know it, time is racing by. Already 30 minutes in, I decide to scan the lake and make a count of the eagles. Most of them are sitting on the ice, a few are in flight over an open channel of water in the middle of the lake. There are a some that are solitary on the ice far from open water. Many others congregate in groups ranging from a pair to nearly a dozen. At one spot I probably count fifteen as I scan the ice and far shore. I can see mature eagles roosting far across the lake, their white heads creating a sharp contrast as they catch the morning sun. Where there is one in the trees, there is usually a pair. Making what I hope to be an accurate count involves intense concentration and focus. It takes me five minutes to do the job and I know that I must have missed birds and perhaps misidentified others. At best I am a very amateur birder, but I tally 73 eagles. (The past weekend a photographer had counted 53 and I messaged the park after I got home and they told me that there have been counts of 75 in past years) Certainly there are dozens upon dozens of eagles. Ironically, the lake itself is home to only one nesting pair, yet many times that congregate here over winter.
I narrow my focus following a few that are in flight. One flies from right to left, soaring above the water and then moves lower, lower and is merely inches away from the softly lapping water. It lifts gently and then lands next to three buddies on the ice. Others circle much higher overhead, diving down to the water only to pull back up and get a different vantage point as they hunt for fish. A few others put on an aerial display like fighter pilots twisting, climbing, diving and turning. Upon reflection, it seems the mature eagles fly together and the immature keep their distance in their own groups. Or perhaps that is just me thinking it is that way.
As I continue to observe their behavior, I notice that the breeze has now changed to more of a windy disposition. A sudden “crack” causes me to break away from the magnifying eyes I am looking through and brings me back to things immediately in my vicinity. Ice begins to creak and groan off the catwalk. I watch as it ever so slightly heaves and then lowers, the wind pushing the water beneath it as it takes on an almost respiratory quality. It makes me think of all the signs in my neighborhood that state “Ice is never safe!” Looking at the ice in front of me I think, “You’re darn right it isn’t safe!” and with that I make sure my camera, notebook and belongings are secure from becoming victims of Barr Lake’s waters.
While my focus has been on the Bald Eagles, our national bird, I have also seen Buffleheads, Mallards, Gulls and many other birds that I could not identify. A birder would be busy for hours here yet my goal is to try and encapsulate this magic into one hour. It is tantalizing to be able to see so many eagles, the most I have ever seen in one single sitting and not have them just a wee bit closer. With just ninety seconds left in this hour four white capped eagles rise up and fly southwest over the water, coming closer than any others have all morning. One breaks formation and circles northeast in front of me. I make a feeble effort at getting his photo. As he soars back over the ice he seems as though he dips his wings to me like a Navy pilot making his way back off into this aquatic eagle paradise.