The Eagles of Manchac
Perks of winter birding in the swamp.
by Ross Baringer
The bald eagle may be the most recognizable bird in the US and for fairly obvious reasons. It is one of
the most famous symbols of our country. Before European colonization even began in North America,
people native to this continent revered the bald eagle as a sacred animal. Although this famous and
impressive bird was once endangered its population has seen a healthy increase since the early
1990’s. Today they are often spotted in the wetlands of Louisiana mostly between November and
Nola Kayak’s tour through Manchac Swamp frequently follows a bayou that leads paddlers right to
the base of a bald eagle’s nest, and last year it was my pleasure and good fortune to watch a brand
new eagle fledge and eventually take its first flight during a tour. Adult eagles are known for their
famous white head and tail feathers, but when a young eagle becomes a fledgling (grows flight
feathers and begins shedding down) it’s a dark brown all over. It takes a full year or more for the
trademark white feathers to come in; however, they are no less impressive as fledglings since at 10-
14 weeks old they are as big as their parents.
It’s around this time that they begin to get curious about flying, first venturing out onto branches that
reach further and further from their massive nests, then nervously opening their wings for brief
periods. Just like human children nervous to take their first swim, young eagles are hesitant to leap
before they look. The one that I watched last year would frequently open its wings halfway while still
gripping the branch it stood on. The wind would pull at its feathers and it would close its wings
quickly and look to its parent, usually sitting in a tree a few yards away. It reminded me of the way
parents try to urge their kids to jump to them in a swimming pool.
The highlight of spring for me wasn’t the alligators waking up. It was finally seeing the young eagle
spread its wings and take flight. Seeing an animal in its natural habitat day after day one gets used to
having it around. I can’t pretend I wasn’t sad to see it go, but I know that eagles return to the same
nests year after year. This is especially true of a nest where a mating couple has successfully raised a
fledgling, so I had a hunch that we’d meet again. While I’m not aware of any identifying tags on my
feathered friend, I did recently spot a handsome young eagle still going through its seasonal feather
changes only a short distance down the bayou from the old nest I watched last year. I can’t say for
sure that it’s the same eagle, but as I paddled under its perch there was a feeling of mutually
acknowledged familiarity – a moment of recognition, as if we’d met before.