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Going Where Eagles Soar

Winter weather provides an ideal chance to see bald eagles at Mason Neck, Pohick Bay parks.

A cold blast of winter wind picked up just as John Shafer was getting ready to start his presentation on bald eagles.

To make up for the reminder that January isn't the time for 60 degree days, Mother Nature tempered her sting with a well-placed adult bald eagle, perched on a tree above Pohick Creek in Pohick Regional Park, giving Shafer a visual starting point to begin his two-hour outing.

"Bald eagles are the largest eagle in our area and they're easy to recognize," Shafer began, pointing to the large bird to his left up in the tree. A group of 12 nature enthusiasts, many equipped with binoculars, listened and tried to bundle themselves up against the cold.

Typically, mid-January is an ideal time to go on a bald eagle watch, Shafer said. "The water is usually covered with ice, so if the eagles aren't territorial, they'll crowd together which makes them easier to spot," he said.

The open water of the Pohick and Accotink Creeks, which converge at Pohick Bay Regional Park, wasn't covered in ice, but bird watchers got to see two adult birds and several groups of adolescent birds, covered in black feathers, during their trip.

"Right now, because the weather's been so nice, the birds aren't being pushed off the bay and they're not as likely to be gathering in one spot," Shafer said.

Bald eagles, once an endangered species, are now listed as "threatened," Shafer said, because efforts to stabilize their numbers have been increasingly successful. In addition, as a national symbol, their populations will always be protected.

EAGLES GO through two distinct coloration phases, he said, and between the ages of 2 and 3 years their dark plumage makes them resemble hawks or vultures to the untrained eye.

"Full coloration, with the dark feathers on the bottom and the white head, happens at between 4 and 5 years of age," Shafer said.

Before that age, however, sometimes the birds will be shot at because a farmer will mistake the birds for a predator that could kill their livestock.

It is more difficult to distinguish male and female eagles than other birds, he said, because they are very similar in size and coloring. Adult female eagles tend to weigh between 10 and 14 pounds, while the male eagles are between 8 and 9 pounds. Typically, a bald eagle's wingspan stretches a 8 feet from tip to tip, he said.

The large birds build even bigger nests, usually about 8 feet wide and 12 feet high, which can be made in the course of only a few days, Shafer said.

DURING SATURDAY'S two-hour trip, bird watchers were able to see several adolescent eagles in addition to a pair of adults, circling overhead at Pohick Bay and Mason Neck State Park. In other years, Shafer said his groups have seen as many as 30 birds gathered together on the ice at Mason Neck.

Taking advantage of the annual trip, Linda Phillips said she wanted to take the opportunity to look for bald eagles simply because she enjoys nature.

"Last weekend, I went to Huntley Meadows for their bird watching trip," she said. "Today seemed like a good day to come out and see the eagles. I saw one once in Seattle, someone pointed it out to me."

It was also the second weekend in a row that Peggy Hale was out in the wild, binoculars in hand, studying birds.

"Last weekend, I was on a trip in Fauquier and Loudoun counties looking at raptors," she said. "I've always wanted to see eagles in real life."

At home, she has companions in her bird watching endeavors, as she and her cats will spend hours watching their feathered friends on the lawn.

"It's so fun to watch birds," Hale said. "I didn't know we'd see this many eagles today, especially the young ones. It's fascinating."

As the trip continued, some of the watchers wondered how the West Nile Virus and avian flu have impacted the eagle population.

"We're seeing a lot of bird flu in Asia right now, it hasn't come across to hit our birds quite yet," Shafer said. "We're starting to see more in the Balkans in the migrating bird populations, but right now West Nile is more of a problem."

DISEASE THAT comes through and wipes out large portions of the bird population seem to happen in waves, Shafer said. Populations will drop until the disease evolves to a point where stronger birds develop an immunity to the disease or antibodies that allow them to kill it.

Birds have a tremendous ability to adapt to their surroundings, he said.

"They can get used to patterns. There's an active nest on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge where it's being expanded, the eagles there raised three young last year alone," he said.

Camera in hand, John Hoecker said the trip had "exceeded my expectations. This is a great trip, I think I've been able to get some good pictures."

He had hoped to take the trip with his wife, who was home and feeling a little under the weather.

"My wife and I have been here before," Hoecker said. "We've been meaning to do this for several years. I've never seen so many eagles before at one time."

Taking a bird watching trip as part of a group is a good way to get more information, said Jane Simpson. "I'm a nature person. I love the natural environment, I like to do what I can to preserve and be in it."

Although not necessarily an avid bird watcher, Simpson said she's brought groups of children from Washington out to Mason Neck on field trips. "This is just a great day. I came here three years ago for the same thing, but we didn't see as many birds."

The eagle watching trip is usually offered only once a year, during the winter when the birds spend more time near the water, Shafer said.