As the official national bird of the United States, the American bald eagle is easily recognizable.

A symbol of patriotism, it’s image can be found on everything from stamps and plush toys to T-shirts, blankets and artwork.

But even the most beautiful sculpture or painting can’t equal the magnificence of a bald eagle in nature. Whether soaring overhead or roosting in a tree, a bald eagle can be awe-inspiring.

In the lower 48 states, winter is the best time to see bald eagles as hundreds of these birds leave their northern breeding grounds and head south in search of their primary food source, fish.

“Bald eagles are scavengers, but their main diet is fish,” said Frank Houck, a long-time member and immediate past president of the Grand Lake Audubon Society. “As soon as it starts getting nasty up north and the lakes start freezing, they come down here to the lake for fishing.”

Grand Lake, as well as other lakes and reservoirs across Oklahoma and Arkansas, provides plenty of dining options for bald eagles.

According to Houck, there are about nine nests around Grand Lake that are here year-round, but the highest concentration of eagles can be seen during the winter.

Bald eagles begin arriving in the area in November with their numbers peaking in January and February.

“This is a good area. There are eagles around to be seen,” Houck said. “Watch out over the water.”

Eagle Watch

January is National Bald Eagle Watch month and members of the Grand Lake Audubon Society plan on doing just that, watch eagles.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, Houck and his fellow eagle seekers will make the group’s annual eagle watching tour around northwest Arkansas.

The group will meet in the Wal-Mart parking lot behind Rib Crib. Everyone will carpool together. The caravan will leave promptly at 6 a.m.

“You can take your own vehicle or can carpool with others. We have eight or nine cars sometimes,” Houck said. “We always have room for folks to join us. If you come, you’re probably not going to have to ride by yourself.”

The group travels to the area round Gravette, Arkansas, where eagles roost at night. 

"We usually get to see them take off," Houck said. "Previously, we’ve seen 50 to 75 eagles flying off, sometimes 100. We see a lot of eagles.”

Houck and his wife, Evelyn, usually scout out the best locations prior to the Eagle Watch so they’ll know where to go to see the most eagles.

“We’ve gone over and watched the eagles fly into the roost,” Houck said.

Houck said the caravan usually makes several circuitous routes through the area in order to see as many eagles as possible.

Around 9 to 9:30 a.m., the group will stop to eat breakfast at a cafe in Gravette. Each person is responsible for his or her own meal.

After breakfast, the caravan will move on to Gentry, Arkansas and SWEPCO Lake, the 500-acre reservoir for Southwestern Electric Power Company’s coal-fueled power plant.

Bald eagles can been seen sitting in the trees surrounding the man-made pond, Houck said.

Water from SWEPCO Lake is used to cool the plant and stays warm all year, which, he said, means year-round fishing for area anglers and hundreds of birds, including eagles in winter.

The group is slated to return to Grove by 2 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, the Eagle Watch should provide plenty of opportunities for seeing bald eagles roosting and in flight, Houck said.

“It’s a hit or miss thing. We can’t guarantee it because birds don’t file flight plans,” Houck joked, adding that “We always see some birds. The main objective is eagles; anything else is a bonus.”

The Eagle Watch is a driving tour with much of the eagle watching being done from inside the vehicles.

“As soon as you get out and start moving around, the eagles recognize it’s not a natural thing," Houck said. "If you get out, the birds are gone in a heartbeat.”

Participants are not required to be members of the Grand Lake Audubon Society to join the Eagle Watch. In fact, the annual trip usually attracts visitors from all around the four-state region.

“People from Oklahoma City, Wichita and Kansas City have come,” Houck said. “We had more than 40 people one year. This year, some people from Joplin are coming.”

30 years of education, conservation

One of seven active chapters within the state, the Grand Lake Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society.

“The National Audubon Society was created for the study, enjoyment and preservation of birds. It also includes all nature and the environment,” said Sandra Sullins, vice president of the Grand Lake Audubon Society. “John James Audubon was an artist who painted beautiful prints of birds, that’s where the name comes from.”

Celebrating its 30th year, members of the local chapter say the group's goals remain the same as when the group was first organized:

To promote the conservation of wildlife and natural environment; to encourage interest in the study of nature; to provide the opportunity for study and observation of birds and other wildlife; to contribute to research in the fields of conservation and ornithology by monetary support and active participation; and to educate the public on the need to protect wild birds and animals, trees and plants, soil, air and water, and promote a better understanding of these natural resources.

“Meetings are held at 7 p.m. in the Grace Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall, at Fourth and Main streets in Grove, on the second Monday of each month September through May,” said Erin Lanway, president of the Grand Lake Audubon Society. “All meetings and field trips are free and open to the public. We are actively hoping to be able to expand membership.”

In addition to the monthly meetings, which feature speakers and presentations from experts on birds and nature, the Grand Lake Audubon Society hosts birding field trips to a variety of sites, including Spavinaw Creek, George Washington Carver National Park, Lendonwood Gardens and Pensacola Dam.

The local chapter also is involved in a number of projects, including Audubon Adventures, furnishing sunflower seeds for the Nature Center at Grand Lake State Park-Bernice and participating in the Christmas Bird Count.

“We furnish the Audubon Adventures publication, which are like the ‘Weekly Reader’ magazines, to fourth-grade teachers in Jay, Grove, Afton, Fairland, Miami and Turkey Ford, if they want it,” Houck said. “We also participate in the Pelican Festival.”

The Grand Lake Audubon Society works with and supports the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center in Joplin.

Sullins said, members helped Har-Ber Village Museum set up its Nature Center, which will feature birds.

The group also holds an annual owl watch at Har-Ber Village.

“We have recordings of owl calls at Har-Ber Village,” Sullins said, “but we’re not as fortunate to see owls like the eagle watch.”

Counting Birds

The Christmas Bird Count is a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society. It’s an early-winter bird census that has been held every year since 1900.

Volunteers go out during a 24-hour period on one calendar day to count birds in the United States, Canada and many countries in the Western Hemisphere.

This long-running wildlife census collects data that is used to access the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.

“We’re assigned a specific circular area in the Spavinaw Creek area,” Sullins said. “Every year, we count to see how many birds are there, get evidence of certain species, migration trends, etc.”

According to the National Audubon Society’s summary of the 116th Christmas Bird Count for 2015-2016, the Grand Lake Audubon Society members who counted the Spavinaw Circle recorded 62 species.

The overall totals for this past count were 58,878,071 birds tallied with 2,607 species recorded.

“We have kind of a unique situation here. This area is called the central flyway because of the migratory pattern of all species coming through here,” Sullins said. “We have migratory birds that come to this part of Oklahoma for nesting and resident birds, as well as water birds.

“It’s interesting and a challenge to know what’s coming depending on the time of year. There’s a big variety of birds, other than the cardinal and chickadee. We have Canadian geese, a dozen or so American white pelicans and bald eagles. Some are here year-round. They don’t migrate.”

Everyone’s Welcome

Houck and Sullins encourage anyone interested in bird watching or who wants to learn more, visit the Grand Lake Audubon Society’s website, www.grandlakeaudubonsociety.com, contact a member or attend a meeting.

“Everyone’s welcome. Come to one of our meetings or join us for a field trip,” Sullins said. “We don’t require membership to come on field trips. Schedules are online. All trips have a contact name. Contact that person to find out more.”

“We have all levels of expertise. I’m more on the novice end and then we have experts like Ellie Womack, who has banded hummingbirds and won awards from the state ornithological society.”

It’s never too late to get involved. Several members, including both Houck and Sullins, are first-time Audubon Society members.

Houck has been a member of the Grand Lake Audubon Society for “a good 15 years,” although he’s been interested in birds since around 1948.

“That’s the first time I remember seeing a starling and I knew what it was,” Houck said. “My family lived in Tulsa at the time. My mother used to feed them on the back porch. I thought they were just the prettiest things.”

Sullins has been a member of the group for nearly 15 years.

“I enjoyed watching birds from backyard feeders, that kind of thing,” Sullins said, “and wanting to know more about them and identify them is how I got interested in birds.”

As for being a member on the Grand Lake Audubon Society, Sullins said, “It is absolutely fulfilling and a challenge to learn the birds. I’m getting there and gaining confidence. I’m still in the novice group, but I can categorize them, but not the superspecies.”

Sullins has never kept count of how many birds she has seen, but she does know which birds she prefers.

“Cedar waxwings. They stand out. You can see them here in winter time in large flocks," she said. "They look like they’ve been painted. They’re just beautiful, the details when you see them up close. I think they’re my favorite … and blue herons.”

For more information on the Grand Lake Audubon Society’s Eagle Watch, persons interested may contact Houck at 918-787-6532 or visit the group’s website at www.grandlakeaudubonsociety.com.

Martha J. Henderson is a freelance writer for The Grove Sun. For more information, persons interested may contact her at mjhenderson@1791.com.