Bald Eagles in Alaska
North of Ketchikan, Alaska, Lighthouse, Totems & EAGLES Excursion embarks on this wildlife adventure tour to view one of North America’s most recognized animals in nature, the American bald eagle. American bald eagles have dark, brown bodies and distinctive white heads and tails. They are not to be confused with golden eagles, which do not reside in southeast Alaska. Rather, bald eagles attain the white plumage of adulthood near the end of their 4th summer, and then the following season, they will seek a mate and raise a family of their own. The "northern" bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus, is found north of 40 degrees north latitude across the entire continent. The largest numbers of northern bald eagles are in the Northwest, especially in Alaska. The "northern" bald eagle is slightly larger than the "southern" bald eagle.
Eagles - Nests and Reproduction
The bald eagle is Alaska’s largest resident bird of prey. With a wingspan reaching 6 1/2 to 8 feet, a weight of 8 to 14 pounds, and powerful talons that can carry an animal with a weight of up to 1/3 their own weight. It is one of the most skilled opportunistic hunters in the animal kingdom.
Like most raptors, the females are larger than the males. Bald eagles are found only in North America, and more bald eagles live in Alaska than the entire southern United States combined. The Alaskan wildlife population of bald eagles is estimated to be nearly 50,000, with about half of that number residing here in southeast Alaska where the highest density is found along the coastline.
During our Ketchikan shore excursion, you can see 10 eagle’s nests along our tour route. Eagles build nests at or near treetops. Some eagle’s nests are found at the tops of tree so high that they reach of height of 125 feet.
Typically, eagle’s nests will have a diameter of between 5 and 7 feet, but some are much larger and can grow to a diameter of over 10 feet. Additionally, some nests can be as deep as 6, 7, or 8 feet. An eagle’s nest grows each year as the nesting pair of eagles strives to reinforce the nest, making it larger, stronger, and more comfortable for them and their offspring.
Eagle nesting activities in the Ketchikan area begin in early April. The female usually lays two eggs, but, occasionally, one or three eggs are laid. Both the male and female share in the incubation duties of sitting on the eggs while the other hunts for food. The eggs usually hatch in sometime between late May and early June. Mating pairs often build an extra nest or two near their primary nest to serve as back-ups in case the main nest blows down or becomes unusable for some reason. The nesting pair works hard to feed themselves and their young. The baby eagles eat a tremendous amount of food and will grow from a baby, about the size of a human fist, to a bird with a wingspan of 6 ½ to 8 feet in a matter of 3 months.
Eagles are said to mate for life, and have a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. Females often outlive the males due to their bigger size. It can help them survive the harsh winters of Alaska. If the male eagle of a nesting pair dies during the winter, the surviving female will seek a new mate in the spring.
You might be asking yourself, “How can they possibly grow this fast?” It’s because of their diet. As stated earlier, they subsist mainly on a diet of seafood, but do venture outside of a seafood diet when seafood is scarce. Alaska has a rich fishing history. Salmon is plentiful in Alaska, which also happens to be an eagle’s choice of food. Their diet also includes herring, flounder, Pollock, and rockfish. In the wintertime, when these fish are in short supply, eagles will feed on waterfowl, sea gulls, small mammals, clams, sea urchins, crabs, and road kill.
Because it had claimed that eagles had consumed an inordinate amount of salmon, the Alaska Territorial Legislator imposed a bounty system on eagles in 1917. Over the next 36 years, over 100,000 eagles were killed. They were at the brink of extinction when the bounty was removed in 1953. In 1956, the American bald eagle was provided federal protection under the Bald Eagle Act of 1940. This Act made it illegal to possess any eagle, alive or dead, or to possess any part of an eagle, including its feathers.
Other Wildlife on Your Alaska “Bucket List”
Viewing Harbor Seals are a daily occurrence for Lighthouse, Totems & EAGLES, typically at the Guard Islands, Vallenar View Wildlife Viewing Area. Also The giant Stellar Sea Lion makes nearly daily fishing expeditions into the area covered by Lighthouse, Totems & EAGLES Excursions. Several species of sea gulls adorn the waters and skies of S. E. Alaska. Numerous sea birds can be seen on our tour route including: Pigeon Guillemot, Surf Scoters, Red breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, Pacific Loons, Common Loons, Black Oystercatcher and Pelagic Cormorants.
Land critters that may be seen include: mink, river otter, Sitka Blacktail Deer, black bear and occasionally Timber Wolves.