Bidding farewell to wintering bald eagles each February is like shedding a tear when a beloved friend heads for home.
Beaver Lake is the winter habitat for a few hundred bald eagles that migrate to Northwest Arkansas from northern states and Canada. Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area hosts pontoon boat cruises on the big lake to view the royal raptors.
Most of the eagles have flown back north, but passengers on one of the season’s last cruises in mid-February had a front row seat for a tremendous wildlife show.
Steve Chyrchel, an interpretive naturalist at Hobbs, was at the helm of the pontoon boat. Ellyn Proctor was among the passengers, carrying her trusty camera. Her husband, Mike, was the volunteer interpreter on the trip, sharing amazing facts about bald eagles with the 17 or so people on board.
Toward the end of February, Chyrchel said, it’s like someone flips a switch and the eagles leave. So he wasn’t surprised when the trip was half over without one eagle being seen.
Cruises head into the Van Winkle Hollow arm of Beaver Lake, near Rocky Branch park, which usually holds good numbers of eagles.
“We’d gone clear to the back of the hollow and hadn’t seen an eagle,” Chyrchel recalled. “So we turned around, and on the way out we spotted a pair of red-tailed hawks. Shortly after that, here comes a bald eagle coming straight at the boat. It veered off and landed in a tree close the boat.”
Ellyn Proctor had her camera ready, trained on the eagle that was 20 feet up a tree.
“Mike saw the eagle land in the tree, so we edged over that way,” Ellyn said. “The eagle was preening itself. Then it started vocalizing really loud, the loudest I’ve ever heard.”
A bald eagle’s call is quieter than most people think. The screech of a red-tailed hawk is often mistaken for an eagle. Earlier in the trip, Mike played a video for passengers that featured an eagle’s call.
“Then one of the hawks came across the sky like a bullet, really close to the boat,” she said.
The hawk had its legs extended when it dropped like lightning through the branches to dive-bomb the eagle.
“The eagle tried to fight off the hawk by spreading its wings,” Ellyn recalled.
All the while she was clicking away, getting amazing pictures.
“That hawk took off, then another took its place,” she said. “Well, that was the last straw.”
The eagle flew down the hollow, fleeing its red-tailed attackers.
It’s tough to tell who was the instigator of that hawk-eagle fight, Chyrchel said. Could be the hawks had a nest nearby and the eagle got too close to it. Maybe the hawks were just feeling frisky. Only the birds know for sure.
Mike may be a good luck charm on the pontoon boat. He was the interpreter on an earlier cruise when two eagles locked talons in flight for an amazing display.
The migratory eagles are mostly gone, but that doesn’t mean they’ve all left. Numbers of bald eagles nationwide have increased so much that eagles are seen at Beaver Lake during spring and summer, but sightings are rare.
There are seven eagle nests on the lake, said Alan Bland, a Corps of Engineers ranger at Beaver.
Hobbs’ eagle cruises are over for this winter. They’ll crank up again in November, when we welcome our beloved feathered friends back to Beaver Lake.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @NWAFlip
Sports on 03/13/2018