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Spotting bald eagles at Guntersville Lake

I’m lucky enough to reside within a half hour of what is probably the best place in Alabama to observe bald eagles. Watching for them along the shoreline of Guntersville Lake is always a good outing, especially if the trip also includes another outdoor activity, or stopping for some seafood for lunch or dinner.

I have enjoyed a few close encounters with bald eagles since 2020. In most cases, I was taking riding my bike or taking photos of fall foliage, not looking for eagles. In most cases, the birds were in tall trees very near to the edge of the lake or checking out roadkill. In a couple of instances, I heard them before I saw them as they took flight from almost directly above my head. 

Here’s some information that will help you enjoy the effort it takes to spot bald eagles at Guntersville Lake or other lakes in north Alabama, southern Tennessee or north Georgia. 

Where is the best place to see bald eagles at Guntersville Lake?

In 2019, a pair of eagles built a nest and raised one eaglet in a tall pine tree at the northern part of the Sunset Drive park in the city of Guntersville. The nest is in a tall pine tree on the narrow strip of land between the shore and the street. Here’s a map to the spot: MAP.

You can see some great photos of the Sunset Drive eagles from last season on these Feb. 2020 articles:

Activity at the nest began again during the week of Nov. 16, 2020. The happy couple apparently layed a new egg (or maybe two) on Monday or Tuesday of that week. I visited the site on Nov. 22 and found some photographers watching the nest. I captured a couple of videos myself as one of the eagles took flight.

One of the photographers, a resident of Sunset Drive, stated he probably would be at the site most afternoons taking pictures of the adult eagles, and later the eaglet. He expected the egg to hatch around Dec. 25-30.

About 2 miles to the north of the Sunset Drive nest, another active nest was found near Marshall County Park #1. It’s on the south side of the park behind the boat dealership, Freedom Marine, and the new Marshall County Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) center (MAP).

Another area with a large number of eagle sightings is the Town Creek part of Lake Guntersville State Park. Eagle watchers visiting the park’s Town Creek Fishing Center and the nearby Eagle Roost View report many sightings each year. Some of the highlights of the Lake Guntersville State Park Eagle Awareness Weekends held each winter includes visits to those spots. The Eagle Roost offers a bluff view overlooking Town Creek from Sand Mountain in the winter when the leaves have fallen from the trees.

Other than those nests at the parks in the city of Guntersville, and the Town Creek section of Lake Guntersville State Park, there are six or seven places that I think of first when I go out in hopes of spotting bald eagles in the wild. Those include:

  • Murphy Hill (map)
  • Honeycomb (map)
  • Morgan’s Cove boat ramp area of Buck’s Pocket (map)
  • Goose Pond Colony Resort (especially the two spots shown on this map)
  • Short Creek boat ramp area of Lake Guntersville State Park (map)
  • South Sauty Creek/Langston boat ramp area (map)

Certainly, some of the beloved dark brown raptors with white feathers on their head and tail have active nests in those beautiful areas. For more insight about them and other possible eagle-spotting locations, see my article: Top 16 public spots for enjoying Guntersville Lake.

Bald eagle spotting tips

While watching nests at Guntersville Lake in the late fall and through the winter increases the odds of seeing eagles, it can also be a lot of fun trying to spot them any time of the year at places other than known nests. Increase your chances by keeping the following tips in mind.

Position yourself so you have a view of an area that lies between some tall pine trees and the water. It’s suitable for a bird with top-of-the-food-chain status to perch in the tallest tree near the edge of the lake facing the water. When one of the eagles leaves a nest or a perch, they seem to almost always glide out over the water. In many places, there are a large number of tall long-leaf pines suitable for such behavior.

There are a good number of parks and boat launch areas where you can easily have a good view of some space between tall trees and the edge of the lake. If you are hiking or kayaking at a remote part of one of the state parks or other places where you find tall pines along the shoreline, be sure to look up often. You may discover an eagles nest or a perching or gliding eagle. 

If you are on a motorboat, finding these kind of spots is even easier. Also many camping sites and rental cabins provide similar settings, so keep that in mind.

Watch for flying eagles that are hugging the shoreline. I have watched eagles fly out of sight while they closely followed the edge of the water. 

Late on winter mornings when the sun heats the earth’s surface, watch for eagles that may be using thermals — columns of rising warm air — to glide and soar. Eagles can reach altitudes of over 10,000 feet using thermals. 

Think like a raptor that eats mostly fish. Try a lagoon, a cove or small bay with shallow water where fish may be easier to see from above with your powerful yellow eyes. Also, look for places where dead fish are likely to wash ashore. 

At a lagoon, small bay or creek that empties into the lake, the trees on the other side can be only a few hundred feet away and a more intimate setting for watching for eagles. The dark green pine trees can make it easier to spot a bald eagle’s white head. That’s hard to do from a half mile away.

Be realistic. Unless you visit a nest that’s known to be active, your expectations need to coincide with the fact that seeing a bald eagle in the wild on your first try is against the odds. Case in point: During a recent eagle-focused visit to various locations on the lake’s southern edge, I counted over 30 vultures, over 40 crows, and a few hawks, but spotted zero eagles. 

Do some research so you can more easily single out different raptors in flight. Hawks, vultures, falcons, eagles and ospreys each have traits that make them rather easy to identify.

You’ll likely see a large number of vultures and crows for every eagle you spot. Vultures are similar in size to eagles. Crows are smaller, but while they are flapping their wings, they look quite similar to eagles. So, it’s helpful knowing how to quickly tell those apart. Falcons are much smaller thn other raptors and crows, so you probably not even know what it is when you see one.

Combine your quest to observe bald eagles at Guntersville Lake with other activities such as canoeing, hiking, zip lining, fishing or watching the sunset while eating ice cream. That way, if you see no eagles, at least you will leave with memories of some kind.

Birders know they’ll see a lot of birds at the lake. And, you will too. Those almost always include great blue herons, cormorants, geese, gulls, ducks, kingfishers and more. So, enjoy those sightings while you are waiting to see an eagle.

Recent eagle experiences

Outside of visiting the active nests, I have recently spotted bald eagles in a few other places at or near the lake.

During the Thanksgiving holiday — Nov. 26-28, 2020 — I spotted seven bald eagles in a 3-day span while combining some hiking with some birdwatching at various lakeside locations at Morgan’s Cove and Town Creek Canyon. Here’s some raw video footage from Morgan’s Cove:

On Nov. 8, 2020, I was enjoying the view while standing on the grass under some tall pines near Sandy Beach on Sunset Drive in Guntersville when I heard the sound of large wings brushing through the pine needles almost directly above my head.

I spun around and saw a bald eagle taking flight. The raptor flew across the small inlet and found a new perch in another tall pine about 500 feet away. It didn’t move an inch as I watched it for over half an hour.

The pine trees I am referring to are at the point where Patterson Street dead ends into Sunset Drive just below the beach (map).

Several walkers and cyclists passed almost directly under the eagle during that half hour, but it didn’t flinch until I walking closer along the shore, closing the gap between myself and the pine tree where it was sitting. I moved to within about 300 feet when it took off, flying further to the south and eventually out of sight.

On Oct. 18, 2020, I was scouting Murphy Hill — a TVA-owned tract of land that’s open to hikers, bicycists, birders and horseback riders — for fall foliage when an unexpected close encounter with a bald eagle occurred.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when a large raptor-shaped shadow glided across my path as I rode my mountain bike along a narrow levee only a few yards from the edge of the water at one of Murphy Hill’s small bays. It seems like you see a vulture or two every time you lift your eyes to the sky around here, and great blue herons are everywhere. But, I soon realized that this particular big bird was a bald eagle.

In 2016, a couple of friends and I briefly enjoyed the company of a stunning bald eagle while we were riding our bicycles through a dense canopy of trees on County Rd. 67 not too far from Comer Bridge  (this spot on the map).

Some of the questions I had when I first became interested in spotting bald eagles

Why are bald eagles found at Guntersville Lake?

Bald eagles were successfully reintroduced to north Alabama several decades ago.

In the mid-1980s, Alabama got involved in national efforts to reestablish the bald eagle population (local residents who live on the lakefront will tell you that there were eagles at the lake before that time). In the northeast corner of the state, biologists with the Alabama Nongame Wildlife Program placed four young bald eagles from Florida into large artificial nests at the Mud Creek Wildlife Management Area in Jackson County. 

The site is about 9 miles north of Scottsboro in a northern backwater portion of Guntersville Lake. It’s now also the location for North Alabama Birding Trail site #42.

Eagles have established territories in the northeast Alabama and southern Tennessee portions of the Tennessee River Valley, and in surrounding lands. The greatest concentrations are believed to be along the shores of the big Guntersville Lake and Wheeler Lake impoundments.

In addition, many eagles from northern states visit the region so they can eat unfrozen meat.

Today, the Guntersville Lake has a large number of spots where catching a glimpse of a bald eagle is likely.

Photo: Pixabay

FUN FACTS: The artificial nests used to introduce young eagles into the wild are also known as hacking towers. State wildlife officials are confident that each of the 67 Alabama counties has at least one nesting pair. They estimate that more than 200 nesting pairs currently reside in the state.

Why are there more bald eagles at Guntersville Lake during the winter?

Many bald eagles that nest in northern states and Canada migrate to southern climates during the winter for easier access to their favorite food. 

Arriving from states such as Michigan and Ohio, many bald eagles visit bodies of water like Guntersville Lake in the winter when the lakes and rivers in their nesting territories begin to freeze. A frozen lake makes it difficult to find fish. And, even the most experienced eagles have a hard time ripping apart the flesh of deeply frozen dead fish.

Due to the warmer climate, the Tennessee River doesn’t freeze, and dead fish would only freeze a few days per year. The backwater areas of a Tennessee River lake such as Guntersville Lake will typically have some ice along the edges only a few mornings each winter.

While no two peak seasons are exactly the same, there are typically more bald eagles at Guntersville Lake during the coldest winter months, January and February, than any other time of the year. 

Furthermore, weather has an impact on the span of time that visiting eagles stay at their winter feeding ground. Therefore, it is not a surprise when a large number is seen in December or March.

Photo: Pixabay

How much does a bald eagle weigh?

Mature female bald eagles in the South weight about 10-11 pounds (4.5-5 kilograms). Males are smaller at about 7-8 pounds (3.5 kilograms). Bald eagles from Canada and Alaska can be about 15-20% larger than the eagles that reside at Guntersville Lake. 

Since their plummage is the same, it’s hard to tell females and males apart. It’s easiest when they are side by side on their nest.

What is the wingspan of a bald eagle?

The wingspan of the largest female bald eagles — Alaskan bald eagles are the largest — can be almost 8 feet (2.4 meters), but most are closer to 7 feet (2.1 meters). More than likely, the wingspans of females found at Guntersville Lake are closer to 6 to 6.5 feet (1.83 to 1.99 meters).

What do bald eagles eat?

Fish is their primary food. They will also eat small mammals, reptiles and birds. Carrion  can be a big part of their diet. Occasionally, a bald eagle might steal a meal from another raptor or predator, or even feast on an abandoned deer, raccoon or opossum carcass.

FUN FACTS: Bald eagles were removed from the endangered species list in 2007. Eagles remain protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (Eagle Act) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).

See my related articles

Enjoy a self-guided bald eagle adventure at Guntersville Lake

A hiker’s guide to the trails at Lake Guntersville State Park

Experiencing the TVA Honeycomb Trail at Lake Guntersville

Lake Guntersville: Enjoying the TVA Cooley Cemetery Trail

Top 16 public spots for enjoying Guntersville Lake

Mountain-lake setting heightens the wow factor of Guntersville’s historic downtown

Encounter history in downtown Scottsboro

A guide to the trails at Buck’s Pocket State Park

State Parks of northeast Alabama

Related resources

Federal laws related to observing eagles

Eagle cam in Iowa

Southeastern Raptor Center

See also my article, Mountain-lake setting heightens the wow factor of Guntersville’s historic downtown.