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Enjoy a self-guided bald eagle adventure at Guntersville Lake

The bald eagles that reside in, or take winter trips to, northeast Alabama dont know that Lake Guntersville State Park canceled the 2021 Eagle Awareness Weekends due to the pandemic.

The educational raptor-related events are typically held around the last two weekends of January and the first two weekends of February. The state park hosts numerous activities such as workshops featuring expert guest speakers, field trips to spots where eagles are known to roost and hunt, and much more.

In 2022, the Eagle Awareness Weekends should fall in a date range of around Jan. 22-23, Jan. 29-30, Feb. 5-6 and Feb. 12-13. The dates are subject to final scheduling decisions by the state park.

 

The locally nesting eagles don’t know about the cancellation, so they will still take flight to hunt and patrol their territories — and later — go out and gather food for their fast-growing eaglets. The raptors that are visiting for the season dont know either. They will still spend some time each day looking for their next meal or posing in tall trees on the edge of the water.

Winter is the prime time at Guntersville Lake for spotting the popular birds. Just because Covid-19 has spoiled the plans for the 2021 annual event at the state park, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn a little about bald eagles on your own, or take a self-guided field trip to some of the best public areas to watch for them.

There are two easy to get to places in the city of Guntersville where you are almost certain to see eagles as they perch or emerge from their nests. And, based on my personal bald eagle sightings during the fall 2020, I recommend a few other places — some where the odds are moderate, and others where it will take more effort to spot them.


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Get a good look at bald eagles the easy way

Image by Mark Fleming from Pixabay

First, let’s take a look at the easily accessible nests in the lovely city of Guntersville. Watching eagles as they carry out their daily activities at each of the following two locations is about as simple as driving to one of the parks, parking your car, walking a few hundred feet, and waiting for an eagle to emerge from its nest. 

Watch the eagle family at the nest on Sunset Drive
There’s an active nest near the park at the north end of the city of Guntersville’s Sunset Drive Walking Trail. It’s in a tall pine tree in a narrow strip of park space between the street and the shoreline. The mother eagle laid an egg — maybe more than one — around Nov. 16, 2020.

Shown as A on the map, the nest is in a great setting in the city’s Sunset Drive park. It may be the easiest to watch and photograph that you will find at the lake. Photographers will be seen watching the nest, especially when the parents start bringing food to their offspring, and when the fledgling, or fledglings, start standing and then attempting to fly.

You can watch the nest from several angles. A pier just a few hundred feet to the north offers an open view of the area where the eagles often circle out over the water.

Directions to nest A: Google map.

Its easy to watch the eagle nest at the county’s waterfront park

Second, and only a couple of miles from the Sunset Drive eagle family, another active nest is found at the south edge of Marshall County Park #1. It’s in a pine tree only a few yards from the George and Gale Kappler Civil War Walking Trail. 

The eagles were still adding sticks and other nest-building materials on Dec. 6, 2020. So, apparently they had not yet laid eggs at that time, putting them a couple of weeks behind the Sunset Drive eagles.

This nest is shown as B on the map.

Although there is an extremely high level of U.S. Hwy. 431 traffic noise, the small-bay and lagoon-setting at the county park is ideal for watching for the eagles.

The sun is in your face most of the day during the winter, so it’s not as photographer-friendly as the Sunset Drive nest site. But, it would be a good spot for a lucky or very patient observer to witness an eagle snatching a fish or waterfowl right out of the water.

Directions to nest B: Google map.

Keep in mind as you plan your visit that both nests A and B are at parks where you can enjoy other activities such as walking, fishing or picnicking. 


Other recommended locations for spotting bald eagles

Outside of the city of Guntersville easy nest quest, there are many other places near the vast shoreline where you have an outstanding chance of a successful eagle watch. 

I spotted eagles at each of the following public places that border the lake during the fall of 2020. Enhance your self-guided bald eagle adventure by including one or more of them in your trip to Guntersville Lake. 

It will take a little more effort, and — in some cases — a good deal more effort than watching the two nests in the city. These sites may require you to hike, bike, launch a canoe, or at least bring your binoculars, along with more patience:

  1. Morgan’s Cove
  2. Town Creek Canyon
  3. Murphy Hill
  4. Honeycomb/TVA Guntersville Dam area
  5. Goose Pond Colony Resort
  6. Weathington Park
Watch bald eagles in a wilder place at Morgan’s Cove

Due to its quieter, yet easy to get to wilderness setting, and its mountain scenery, Morgan’s Cove is my top choice this winter for spending an hour or two looking for bald eagles. 

Unlike the traffic noise you must endure at the nest locations in the city of Guntersville, Morgan’s Cove offers a calmer setting. It can be very quiet, and you can get out in the woods while enjoying the almost constant sound of kingfishers, woodpeckers and other birds, as well as, the sound of the water hitting the shore and the wind blowing across the mountains slopes. Only an occasional pickup, motorboat or string of ATVs interrupts the sound of nature.

Morgan’s Cove is site #49 of the North Alabama Birding Trail. I enjoyed watching bald eagles there while visiting during the Thanksgiving 2020 weekend. See this short video that I shared on the SouthernOutings Facebook page.

I prefer to combine outdoor activities like hiking and casual birding, and Morgan’s Cove’s lakefront forest is an ideal place to do that. The cove is part of Buck’s Pocket State Park and located where South Sauty Creek meets the lake. There’s a boat launch with a pier, and an ORV trail that makes it easy to move through the woods to get to a variety of spots around the shoreline.

There’s no better place for combining eagle spotting with kayaking or fishing. And, if birding is your preferred outdoor activity, it’s a special place to enjoy seeing and hearing a wide variety of birds. There’s also a big variety wildlife habitat, so coyotes, deer, armadillos, chipmunks, beavers and other mammals are somewhat common.

Directions to Morgan’s Cove: Google map.

Town Creek Canyon is another place to combine eagle spotting with a visit to the woods

If there’s any true hotspots for spotting wintertime bald eagles at Guntersville Lake, this is one of them. After the hardwoods have shed all their leaves, birders will sometimes converge at this area on winter mornings with their telephoto lenses and spotting scopes in hopes of watching eagles as they roost and take to the skys. 

It’s only 3 miles from Morgan’s Cove to a place called The Eagle Roost View which overlooks the Town Creek Canyon portion of Lake Guntersville State Park from the bluff of Sand Mountain. The slopes on both sides of the creek are part of the state park.

If you prefer to watch for eagles at the water’s edge, one option is to get up very early and visit the pier at the Town Creek Fishing Center. And, for a more-involved adventure, there are two options for hiking or horseback riding into the bottom of the canyon.

One of the daily highlights of the canceled 2021 Eagle Awareness Weekends would have been a pre-sunrise visit to that pier. Each year, event participants gathered there before 6 a.m. to watch eagles fly away from their roosts in the canyon towards the main channel of the Tennessee River. They also met there before sunset hoping to watch them come back.

One eagle I spotted at Town Creek Canyon in Dec. 2020

For hikers, you can walk or ride in from Smith Cemetery near the northeast end of the state park property, or use the horse trailhead on the southwest end. Whichever starting place you choose, you will find the terrain to be typical of the Appalachian foothills.

Smith Cemetery is only about 0.6 mile from where the Eagle’s Roost View is shown on Google maps. You will find a path to the right of the small cemetery sign that will lead you into land now owned by the State of Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust. You can park on a wide area on the edge of Alabama Hwy. 227 near the sign.

The path leads through the forest along a hollow for about 600 yards until it meets the state park’s main horse trail. From that intersection, you can hike in either direction to find a spot where it’s easy to get an open view of the creek, canyon slopes and sky. If you go to the east a little less than a mile, there's a clearing on the water’s edge where there’s a small shelter. If you go to the west less than two miles, you will come upon a spot called Winston Mill that offers an open view.

And like Morgan’s Cove, this area offers more of a wilderness setting than watching the eagles in the city. 

Remember that the Smith Cemetery path is just west of the Eagle Roost View as shown on Google maps.

The Town Creek Horse Trails trailhead is five miles to the southwest of Smith Cemetery via Hwy. 227. Eagle watchers who want to hike into the canyon can park in the lot across from the horse-trailer entrance, the boat launch area or the Town Creek Fishing Center. A short trail connects the fishing center to the horse trail.

The main horse trail is 6.22 miles long so an out and back outing would total a long 12.44 miles. The main trail parallels the shoreline, and passes within a few feet of the water in some places so you certainly don’t have to go the entire distance to find a good place to watch for bald eagles. The canyon provides a variety of wildlife habitat, so an crossing paths with deer, muskrats or other animals should be expected on occasion.

Connecting trails go higher up on the mountain slopes. Take the pink trail to the Dr. John W. (Bill) Benton Overlook if you would like to enjoy a nice bluff view towards the west. Each trail features some steep sections.

The Northeast Alabama Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of America maintains the horse trails.

See the new Simp McKee Bains and Samuel Gordon Culbert Horse Trails map for a detailed illustration in both JPG and PDF format. You can also see the map on the billboard at the main trailhead. Everything except the connector trail from Smith Cemetery is shown on the map. The map’s background is from the U.S. Topo maps, so it provides a good look at the elevation changes that you will enjoy.

For those who would like to ride a horse into the canyon, but don’t have their own, Alabama Horseback Adventures offers 1- and 2-hour rides, and custom rides at the Town Creek Horse Trail.

Watch for eagles while hiking or riding a horse or mountain bike on the Murphy Hill paths

Shown as number 3 on my map, Murphy Hill is located just a few miles from the two state parks. Shown as Murphy Hill Horse Trail on Google maps, the TVA-managed area is very flat compared to most places located on the lake. 

They prepared the property to be a power plant site back in the 1980s, but all that’s left are a coal barge dock, some ponds, some levees that serve as the main trails, and some other hard-to-see remnants. 

The combination of lakefront wetlands and forest make for a variety of wildlife habitats. For eagle spotting, I recommend following the main gravel path that leads from the parking lot to the winding edge of the small bay. It’s a 1-mile walk, or mountain bike or horseback ride to the best location which is at the north end of the first levee.

You should probably wear a high-visibility outer garment if you visit in the middle of winter so you are not mistaken for a wild turkey or whitetail deer.

Give spotting bald eagles a try while hiking or visiting the shoreline at the Honeycomb/TVA Guntersville Dam area

With some patience, the forested shoreline anywhere between the highway at Honeycomb and the Guntersville dam is good for watching for eagles. Like the places described above, there is a big variety of wildlife habitat.

Not far north of the city of Guntersville on U.S. Hwy. 431, the TVA-managed property named after Honeycomb Creek has some of the best mountain/lake scenery in the region. The TVA Guntersville Dam is only 6.5 miles from Honeycomb by car, or 9.3 miles via the TVA Honeycomb Trail

I recommend hiking to get to one of the big hollows. From the dam, it’s a mountainous hike of only about 1.8 miles to a wetland area at the tip of Hamrick Hollow. From the trailhead near the entrance of the Honeycomb Campground, it’s a hilly 2.5 miles to the tip of Pumpkin Hollow.

Finding an unobstructed view of the sky is possible at a couple of the bluffs and places where the trail is very near to the edge of the water.

TVA Honeycomb Trail map.

At Honeycomb, there’s a large grassy area adjacent to the TVA boat ramp that serves as a nice place to scan the beautiful area for raptors and waterfowl, and there’s plenty of greenspace at the dam for doing the same.

NOTE: A pair of bald eagles have been nesting near the dam for several years, but the last known nest has not been active since 2016.

Goose Pond Colony has several places along the lake’s shore where bald eagles may perch or hunt

The city of Scottsboro’s Goose Pond Colony Resort has numerous spots where eagle watchers could be rewarded with a sighting. My last sighting was in October 2020 at the parking lot of dock #6. From that spot, you get a panoramic view that includes the marina, golf course, some small islands, and the distant mountains. 

Be patient and watch the yachts, fishing boats, golfers and ducks while you wait for the possibility of an eagle catching your eye.

Enjoy a raptor’s view while watching for eagles at Weathington Park in Section

Watch for raptors flying below the edge of the mountain or across the hollow. You may see a bald eagle in the distance perching on the water’s edge. Their white heads and tails can be pretty easy to see when the light is right. My recent eagle sightings at this small bluffside park convinced me to include it here. Like the other seven locations described above, patience is important. 

Spend some time watching for one, and you may see one circling the hollow. Check out this video from the southernoutings.com Facebook page of bald eagles circling the hollow.

You can see for miles, so be sure to bring your binoculars or telephoto lens. There’s a walking path if you want to exercise instead of just taking in the view while hoping to see an eagle in flight.

The perfect place to end a day of raptor watching, I believe a pair of eagles have a nest near the edge of the water somewhere in that scenic hollow you see on the left side of the park. And, considering the space that falls within the panoramic view, there are likely two or three other nesting pairs within the broad range of view.

A Weathington Park view

There are probably several dozen eagle nesting pairs in the Guntersville Lake region. Add to that the fact that dozens — maybe a few hundred — additional bald eagles from northern states come to the region in the winter, and your chances of spotting some of the big birds of prey increase a good deal from mid-December to early March. Accordingly, there are many other places besides the seven shown here where eagle sightings are possible.

If you have access to a motorboat, a boat trip to the places described above or similar locations certainly provides an advantage over watching for eagles from the shore. Fishermen have reported winter roosting eagles in a variety of locations.

For more about Guntersville Lake, see my related articles:


More resources for your self-guided bald eagle adventure

Here’s some things that can make any birding weekend at Guntersville Lake complete.

Book a lodge room, cabin, chalet or camping spot at Lake Guntersville State Park.

Rent a pontoon boat, canoe or kayak at Town Creek Fishing Center.

Learn about the Buck’s Pocket State Park campground.

Rent a private cabin on Guntersville Lake.