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Va. state park offers chance to see bald eagles in flight

Monday - 7/1/2013, 6:49am  ET

eagle in flight Caledon State Park (WTOP/Ed Kelleher)
A bald eagle flies along the Potomac River at Caledon State Park on Saturday, June 29, 2013. (WTOP/Ed Kelleher)
  • Gallery: (42 images)

KING GEORGE, Va. - A bald eagle sits perched in a tree overlooking the Potomac River, the white top of its head giving it away to a small group of people on Caledon State Park's eagle tour.

"She can actually see fish 2 miles away," says Alex Bortner, park interpreter, as she gives the 1 1/2-hour tour Saturday.

Through Bortner's high-powered, Pentax spotting scope or binoculars, the group can see the adult eagle scouting for prey from the sandy, driftwood-covered Virginia shore.

Looking in the other direction, another eagle glides across the water and back to the park that sits on a 3 1/2-mile stretch along the Potomac.

In the marshes of the 2,583-acre Virginia state park in King George County, bald eagles make their home.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Caledon has one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles on the East Coast.

Major concentrations of bald eagles are found not only along the Potomac River, but also along the Rappahannock and James rivers. Smaller concentrations are found near the York and Chickahominy rivers, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

How many eagles nest in Caledon is not known, although King George County's website boasts that at least 60 have been spotted.

While there's no guarantee people on the tour will see an eagle, Bortner says there would be a "95 percent" chance of seeing at least one.

And those on the tour did, in fact, see multiple eagles, but at a distance from two different locations -- cliffs high above the Potomac and along the river's sandy banks.

Two known bald eagle nests sit high in the canopies of loblolly pine and tulip poplar trees at Caledon, Bortner says.

The Potomac River provides "excellent, excellent fishing grounds for eagles," Bortner says.

Once on the federal endangered species list, the bald eagle is now a protected species but no longer in danger of dying off as it was in the 1970s when the pesticide DDT caused the national symbol's population to plummet.

"They're doing very, very well," Bortner says, describing the national comeback of the bald eagles, which are only found in North America.

Caledon State Park offers a peek at the habitat of the bald eagle on select summer weekends, as well as July 4. For $3 a person or an $8 family fee, the tour starts in the visitors center before participants board a bus and head to the two Potomac River locations.

In the visitors center, two mounted eagles and an actual nest give visitors an up-close view of the life of the birds. Bortner or other tour interpreters then offer more background on the birds, with facts ranging from the following:

  • How surprisingly strong an eagle's talon is compared to a person's hand.
  • What eagles don't know instinctively. What they have to learn is eye-opening and funny.
  • How a female eagle tests the bravery of her mate while they are courting. (Men, this story gives new meaning to trust. See the photo gallery for more.)

The eagle tour requires advanced reservations and is one of several family friendly events offered at the park. Others events involve searching for sharks' teeth, discovering what creatures live in the Potomac or the marshes, learning about hummingbirds and butterflies or going on a geocaching scavenger hunt.

Caledon State Park is about 60 miles from D.C., an easy one-tank trip. As a daytime park, it has 10 trails for hiking, as well as picnic areas with barbecue grills.


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