Everything you need to know to
spot a bald eagle during your trip
Alaska’s Bald Eagles
The beautiful and majestic bald eagle has flown supreme over Alaska for generations.
Within the oral traditions of the Tlingit and Haida peoples of the Inside Passage, there is a story about a man who married an eagle. Now, this man was not a good hunter, but with special coats given to him by his new brothers-in-law, the man was able to catch cod, salmon, halibut, and seal easily. The man became a good provider, bringing food to his old mother and (depending on the version of the story) showing his brothers where to catch fish or protecting his mother from people who wanted to do her harm.
The Eagle represents power and is one of two moieties (or halves), along with Raven, of the Tlingit, Haida, and Eyak people.
All About Eagles
While bald eagles live throughout the United States and Canada, Alaska is home to more than 30,000 bald eagles – estimated at 75% of the breeding population.
You’ll see these large, powerful birds throughout much of our state, perching on old-growth spruce along the coastline of the Inside Passage, or in giant cottonwood trees near inland rivers and large waterways. (They’re usually on the lookout for fish and the occasional small bird or mammal to feed their families.)
Bald eagles are huge, weighing up to 14 pounds and with wingspans up to 7 feet wide. It may be no surprise then that the young chicks have the fastest growth rate of any North American bird, gaining approximately 6 ounces each day until they leave the nest sometime in August or September. These brown-and-white-streaked young birds are often mistaken for golden eagles until they develop their distinctive white head around 5 years of age.
Naturalist tip: If you want to tell a golden eagle from an immature bald eagle, check out the legs. The golden eagle’s legs are completely covered with feathers, while the immature bald eagle shows off his (or her) bare legs.
The Life of an Eagle
Starting in February, you may see a pair of eagles spinning and falling through the air, talons locked. Even though bald eagles mate for life, these aerial acrobatics reinforce the bond during their annual courtship display. Forget flowers and chocolates – fish for dinner is the eagle’s favorite meal.
Eggs – typically two – are laid in April. As you travel around Alaska in spring and summer, look for nests in tall trees with good waterfront views. These massive structures can be up to 12 feet wide, 3 feet deep, and weight up to 1 ton! If you’re lucky, starting in May, you may see fuzzy young birds peeking over the nest’s edge, looking for their next meal.
How to Spot Bald Eagles
Bald eagles are most common along the Inside Passage and in Southcentral and Southwest Alaska, although they may be found throughout the state.
You’ll typically see eagles flying along coastal areas and anywhere there is a large body of water with healthy fish populations. Bald eagles tend to congregate during the cooler months when they’re not busy raising eaglets. Two reliable spots to cast your eye on eagles are along the Inside Passage.
In late April, the community of Wrangell hosts the Stikine River Birding Festival, where thousands of bald eagles cruise the Stikine River looking for hooligan – a type of small, oily fish also known as eulachon. Keep an eye out for opportunistic behavior – the eagles have lots of competition from thousands of gulls who also want a tasty meal.
In fall, bald eagles congregate around open water, looking for late salmon runs and an easy meal of spawned-out salmon. Visitors to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve near Haines can see up to 4,000 bald eagles soaring above the Chilkat River or perched on cottonwood trees near the river’s delta during the annual Haines Bald Eagle Festival each November.
In Sitka, Juneau, and Anchorage, rehabilitation centers care for injured eagles year-round, releasing them back into the wild when possible. Birds that can’t be released become education birds, teaching schoolchildren and visitors about the beauty of wild birds and the wild places they call home.