Eagle-Watching in Bald Eagle State Park
A Bald Eagle State Park Snapshot
Facilities: Restrooms, camping, cabins, lodge, environmental center.
Driving Directions: From the west, take Interstate 80 to exit 158. Follow Route 150 north about eight miles to the main park entrance on the right. From the east, take Interstate 80 to exit 178. Follow U.S. Route 220 north to PA Route 150. Follow Route 150 south for about 13 miles.
Viewing Directions: A nest is visible from the Hunter Run Cove area at the end of Foster Joseph Sayers Road. The nest is on the south side of the lake.
Property Hours: Sunrise to sunset.
Best Eagle Viewing Season: Year-round
Activities at the site: Boating (unlimited hp), hunting, fishing, birding, hiking and swimming.
Other Wildlife: Birds of prey, songbirds, upland ground birds, waterfowl, mammals, butterflies.
Where to go, what to look for
Bald Eagle State Park lies at the junction of two distinct geologic provinces. The Allegheny Plateau, with a rolling landscape of hills, uplands and forked streams, borders the northwest side of the park's Foster Joseph Sayers Lake. On the southeast side, the forest slopes up Bald Eagle Mountain, the first anticline in the Ridge and Valley Province. This part of the ridge is situated on the west edge of the Appalachian Mountains.
The surrounding mountains create a scenic backdrop for the 1,730-acre reservoir. Impounded by an earthen dam, this man-made lake stretches 7.5 miles and provides 23 miles of shoreline. The mountain ridges in this geologic region are natural flyways for migrating birds. A great number of bird species migrate along the ridgetops and many drop down to stopover at the park. The park is part of Important Bird Area #32, selected because of the importance of the Bald Eagle Mountain to migrating raptors.
Numerous birds, from the ruby-throated hummingbird to the bald eagle, nest and raise young within Bald Eagle State Park. A pair of bald eagles nests on the upper end of the lake. The eagles built the nest on the rugged, more remote, ridge side of the lake, south of the access points where visitors can see it. This nest is watchable from the opposite shoreline in the Fisherman's Access Area at the end of Foster Joseph Sayers Road.
An eagle pair returns to the same territory and nest area each breeding season. The pair rebuilds or repairs this nest annually, depending on how much it has been damaged in autumnal and winter storms. Eagle pairs regularly enlarge and renovate their nest before incubation begins. If the nest tree remains intact through inclement weather, natural aging and other environmental factors, over the years a nest may reach enormous dimensions. A nest may exceed eight feet wide, 12 feet deep and weigh more than a ton. Typical nests are five to six feet wide and more than three feet deep. Bald eagles build the largest nest of any North American bird. Eagle nests are usually at the edge of or near a lake, river or large creek and a pair often chooses the largest tree in the area. This pair is particularly persistent in its use of the lake each year, often starting incubation in February after doing considerable repair work to their nest, which is susceptible to winter winds and bad weather. Despite the challenging conditions, this is one of the most productive eagle nests in the state and regularly fledges two or three eaglets.
Activity at the nest may begin in mid to late winter and continues through spring. Binoculars or a spotting scope provide the best opportunity to enjoy eagles on the nest. Typical breeding behavior may include an eagle flying to the nest with a twig or branch in its talons, the pair rearranging nesting material or engaging in soaring and aerial maneuvers together. During this period eagles are often seen perched near one other.
During most winters, much of the lake remains ice-free. Therefore, it is common to see eagles year-round at the park. Throughout the year, another good vantage point from which to spot eagles is the lookout above Pavilion #5 along Skyline Drive.
Bald Eagle State Park features not only a lake, but a mix of fields, thickets, and woods that make it a great place to see a variety of birds quickly. Birds of thickets and edge are easily found along the roads and trails of the park. It is an easy place to find mourning doves, northern flickers, indigo buntings, field sparrows, and song sparrows. Red-winged blackbirds are conspicuous in the fields and wet areas, but it takes more effort to find the local swamp sparrows. The woodland bisected by Skyline Drive is a good place to identify migrating and breeding warblers and other songbirds in the spring. In the forest, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and scarlet tanagers are regular breeding species and migrants. Many other species, such as Tennessee, yellow-rumped, and Canada warblers, are seen in migration. Nearly 30 warblers have been identified at the park.
Below Skyline Drive, the Butterfly Trail and Skyline Trail circle Frog Pond, a small pond with bordering wetland. This area is good for warblers, songbirds and waterfowl in spring, summer and fall. Breeding birds include the Canada goose, red-winged black-bird, ruby-throated hummingbird, northern cardinal, gray catbird, cedar waxwing, song sparrow, yellow-breasted chat, yellow warbler and common yellowthroat. During migration wood ducks, ring-necked ducks and hooded mergansers drop in to feed and rest at Frog Pond and on the lake.
Around the lake from the beach area, Hunter Run Cove, Marina and other launch sites, it is common to spot waterfowl. This is a popular stopover for tundra swans in spring. The common merganser is a regular visitor to the lake with dozens — sometimes even hundreds — seen in early spring on the lake. Both the green-headed drakes and dull-colored hens forage on fish in the deep waters of the lake. Autumn migration may bring horned grebes, pied-billed grebes, red-breasted mergansers, common goldeneye, greater and lesser scaup, bufflehead, ruddy duck, long-tailed duck, common loons and American coot to the lake. Shorebirds like the solitary sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, greater and lesser yellowlegs, pectoral sandpiper, least sand-piper, killdeer and dunlin may stop to forage the shoreline during autumn migration. Great blue herons and osprey are regular visitors.
The numbers of water birds varies greatly from year to year. Inclement weather sometimes causes fallouts of migrating waterfowl and other water birds. This park is one of the best places in the region to find accidental rarities that are attracted to this isolated body of water.
Spring migration brings green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, ruddy duck, tun-dra swans and American black ducks. During migrations it is also possible to see Virginia rail, sora, Wilson's snipe and several gulls and terns including ring-billed, herring, and Bonaparte's gulls; and black, Forster's common and Caspian terns. Bald Eagle Mountain is an important corridor for migrating raptors, including the golden eagle.
The American woodcock, also known as a "timberdoodle," is found in good numbers at Bald Eagle State Park. The woodcock requires early succession habitats and moist woodlands with plenty of earthworms that it probes from the soil. With the help of native plant and early succession stage habitat restoration projects at the park, it is common to see and hear woodcocks at several places, including the area around the park office, the land between the Marina and Marina Road up to and beyond the Main Park Road, and the Letterman Campground. Breeding and migrating woodcock utilize these prime habitats. This also is one of the best places to observe golden-winged warblers, an Audubon Priority Species that requires young forest habitat to nest successfully. This handsome small songbird needs a mosaic of herb cover, shrubs, small trees, with a few larger trees mixed in.
Management on behalf of woodcocks and golden-winged warblers may look messy, because it requires cutting and removing brush and trees. But it is necessary to disturb areas to create good nesting habitat for these species. Other early succession and young forest birds, such as the ruffed grouse, willow flycatcher, gray catbird, brown thrasher, chestnut-sided warbler, prairie warbler, common yellowthroat, and eastern towhee, also use this habitat. You also can hear the calls of the eastern whip-poor-will in the evenings in these managed young forests. This guild of birds has declined greatly over the last few decades given lack of disturbance in some areas and because of permanent loss of shrub land and young forest to development in other areas. It is good cottontail rabbit habitat, too. Bald Eagle State Park works with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Pennsylvania Game Commission, Ruffed Grouse Society, Woodcock Limited of Pennsylvania, and Indiana University of Pennsylvania to manage for young forest habitat that support these declining species.
A bluebird trail provides bluebirds and other cavity-nesters with 60 boxes designed primarily for bluebirds. Bluebirds are common throughout the park's open areas. Tree swallows also commonly use these boxes. Purple martins that nest in nearby Howard can be seen flying over the lake and around the park. Lakes like this one are a great place to see a variety of swallows.
In winter, this park is known for hosting northern shrike, a rare visitor from the arctic tundra. The shrikes methodically perch high — like sentinels — on treetops and shrubs, where they search for prey, then swoop low to fly up to their next perch. Their black, grey, and white plumage, black mask, and sharply hooked beak are indicative field marks. The lakeshore also is a place to find visiting snow buntings and American tree sparrows. Bald Eagle State Park and the adjacent State Game Lands 92 and Bald Eagle Mountain provide good bird habitat in all seasons.
For additional information, contact:
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bald Eagle State Park, 149 Main Park Road, Howard, PA 16841. telephone: 814-625-2775
By Kathy Korber and Doug Gross