The Sunshine State is a haven for wildlife, boasting some of the most iconic wilderness areas of North America. From the Florida Keys to the Everglades, Florida is a nature lover’s paradise. And between the forests, grasslands, wetlands, islands, and coastline, the diverse environment supports over 500 species of birds, including some rare and endemic species. Birdwatchers exploring this southeastern state will be spoilt for choice.
Hotspots include the iconic Everglades, the Dry Tortugas National Park, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the Apalachicola National Forest. There is also the Great Florida Birding trail to explore. In this article, we take a look at the eagles of Florida. Only species are native and common in the region, namely the bald eagle and the golden eagle. However, once in a while, the white-tailed eagle and the Stellar’s sea eagle make rare appearances in the state.
Eagles are revered raptors that symbolize freedom, victory, courage, pride, and royalty. They vary in size from the Nicobar Serpent Eagle at 16 inches to the Philippine eagle, which clocks in at around 3 feet in length with a 6-foot wingspan. Male and female eagles are similar in plumage and overall appearance, but females are significantly larger and heavier than females.
Eagles live in a variety of habitat types. They are diurnal raptors, meaning that they hunt mainly during the day. There are four types of eagles. They are the true eagles (with fully-feathered legs up to the feet), the fish eagles or sea eagles, the snake eagles, and the forest eagles. The golden eagle is the only true eagle in Florida. The rest are sea eagles.
Like most raptors, eagles are monogamous birds that form life-long pair bonds. They are known to engage in elaborate courtship displays with their mates. These displays often involve impressive aerial acrobatics.
Eagles build large stick nests called eyries, which they typically re-use year after year, adding new material each year. They lay one to three eggs per season, but typically two. The young are called eaglets, and they are altricial. However, some species, such as the bald eagle are considered semi-altricial. In some species, eaglets often engage in fascinating play behavior with their sibling/s.
Types Of Eagles In Florida
1. Bald Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Lifespan – 20 years
- Size – 28 – 40 in
- Weight – 6.6 and 13.9 lb
- Wingspan – 5 ft 11 in and 7 ft 7 in
- Status – Least concern
The bald eagle is the national bird of the U.S. and the most common eagle you will encounter in Florida. It is a large, striking sea eagle with its characteristic white head and tail and dark body plumage. Its piercing eyes, large hooked bill, and powerful feet are bright yellow, and it has long, sharp talons. Typical of sea eagles, the bald eagle has featherless legs.
Fun fact: Bald eagles are, in fact, not bald. The name is derived from the old English word “balde” which means white in reference to the color of its head and tail feathers.
Bald eagles occur all across North America. There are two subspecies, with the nominate subspecies occurring in the south and the other in the north. While northern populations are migratory, birds in the southern states are resident. The bald eagle can therefore be seen year-round in Florida. During winter, they may flock together in large numbers. You will find these distinguished raptors around large water bodies in a range of habitats varying from swamps and wetlands to lakes, rivers, and even coastal environments.
If you are expecting to hear the powerful cry popularized by media, you may need to lower your expectations to avoid disappointment. The call made famous in pop culture is more than likely that of the red-tailed hawk. The actual sounds of the bald eagle include a weak whistle, squeaky piping, or soft, chirping notes. Bald eagles nest atop large, tall trees. The nest is exceptionally large. In fact, the largest recorded nest was in Florida at 10-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep! Nests are constructed of branches and twigs and lined with feathers, grass, and other soft materials.
The bald eagle is an opportunistic hunter with a predominantly piscivorous diet. They are often seen swooping down at their prey across the water and snatching them with their talons. Bald eagles also prey on waterbirds such as ducks, geese, and gulls. They may also feed on small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and even carrion. In Florida, turtles, and other reptiles make up a significant portion of their diet. Bald eagles were brought to the brink of extinction in the United States but populations have since recovered.
2. Golden Eagle
- Scientific name – Aquila chrysaetos
- Lifespan – 20 years (wild)
- Size – 26 to 40 in
- Weight – 11 lb (female); 7.9 lb (male)
- Wingspan – 5 ft 11 in – 7 ft 8 in
- Status – Least concern
Although the bald eagle is the most common species of eagle on the continent, the golden eagle is the most widely distributed, with a range that spans across the northern hemisphere. It is also the largest eagle in North America. It is a true eagle, named for the golden-brown coloration on the crown and nape. The rest of the plumage is mostly dark brown, with some gray, and pale feathering on the feet. Golden eagles have yellow feet, yellowish-brown eyes, and a black bill with a yellow cere.
There are six subspecies of which the North American variant – Aquila chrysaetos canadensis – is found all across the continent. Golden eagles are sedentary birds. However, some northern populations migrate south for the winter. This species is found in habitats with plenty of open ground for hunting. Golden eagles are uncommon in Florida as they are more prevalent in mountainous areas. Your best chance at a sighting would be in winter around the coast or marshy habitats like the Everglades National Park. If you are lucky to spot them during spring, you might catch sight of their magnificent courtship rituals.
They are not very vocal raptors but may give off the occasional high-pitched whistle, mostly during the breeding season. Golden eagles typically nest on cliffs, crags, or ledges. A pair may have several eyries in one nesting site. The large nest is made up of sticks and branches and is lined with soft grasses. Known for their hunting prowess, golden eagles often work in pairs to take down their prey in impressive and dramatic hunting feats.
Did you know? Golden eagles have been used in falconry for centuries.
These agile raptors prey on small mammals such as rabbits, hares, and squirrels. They also feed on small to medium-sized birds, reptiles, and carrion. Although golden eagles have such a wide range, they do not fare well around human development, and the species has disappeared in much of its former range. Overall global populations are, however, considered stable.
3. White-Tailed Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus albicilla
- Lifespan – 27 years (wild)
- Size – 26 to 37 in
- Weight – 11 lb
- Wingspan – 5 ft 10 in – 8 ft 0 in
- Status – Least concern
Also known as the ern, the white-tailed eagle is a large sea-eagle named for its white tail. The rest of the plumage is brown and buff. Its eyes, bill, and feet are yellow. It is closely related to the bald eagle, with which it forms a species pair. White-tailed eagles are extremely rare in the United States. They breed in Europe and Asia, with the northernmost populations migrating south for the winter.
Vagrant birds sometimes occur in Alaska and Hawaii. But it is rumored that this species has been spotted in other parts of the country, including Florida on rare occasion. The best chance of spotting a white eagle is during the breeding season between March and April around coastal cliffs. White-tailed eagles can be very vocal during this time with the pair often calling in duet. The male calls louder than the female. The contact call can be transcribed as a series gri gri gri notes.
White-tailed eagles occupy similar habitats to bald eagles. They can be found near large, open bodies of water with surrounding high points such as tall trees, cliffs, and crags. Habitat types include wetlands, lakes, and rivers. They often take to coastal environments such as mangroves and estuaries during winter. If you are lucky enough to catch sight of this eagle in Florida, it would likely be in a similar environment.
White-tailed eagles nest in large trees. The large nests are made of branches and sticks and lined with soft materials such as grasses, plant fibers, moss, fur, and seaweed. This opportunistic predator has a wide and seasonally varied diet comprising fish, birds, and to a lesser extent, mammals. They may also scavenge, especially during the winter.
Despite their wide range, the habitat of the white-tailed eagle is fragmented due to human development. Their range was much more extensive, but various human activities led to local extinctions. Historically, the main threats to the species have been over-fishing, habitat destruction, indiscriminate persecution, and inadvertent poisoning by pesticides and other harmful agricultural chemicals. Thankfully, through protection laws, habitat reclamation efforts, and reintroduction initiatives, many populations have recovered, bringing the global population up to an estimated 20 000 to 50 000 individuals.
4. Steller’s Sea Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus pelagicus
- Lifespan – 20 – 25 years (wild)
- Size – 3 ft 3 in (female); 2 ft 11 in (male)
- Weight – 14 to 21 lb (female); 10.8 to 15.0 lb (male)
- Wingspan – 6 ft 5 in – 8 ft 2 in
- Status – Vulnerable
Another rare sighting in Florida would be the Stellar’s sea eagle. Named after the German naturalist George Wilhelm Stellar, it is the largest sea eagle and one of the largest raptors weighing in at a hefty pounds on average. The Stellar’s eagle is a stocky raptor with distinctive, pied plumage. It is mostly dark brown with contrasting white feathers on the wings, thighs, and tail. It has yellow eyes, an exceptionally large yellow bill, and yellow feet.
This species is native to northeastern Asia and winters south of its breeding range. Migrating birds are known to provide an occasional, albeit, very rare sighting in North America. They live in forested habitats near water, nesting along rocky outcrops or atop large trees. The bulky nest is made of sticks, and they often build multiple nests. They can also be found in wetlands and coastal environments in some parts, especially during winter.
The barking call of the Steller’s sea-eagle is a deep “ra-ra-rau-rau.” They are also known to produce loud, gull-like sounds during courtship. Stellar’s sea eagles mainly prey on fish, but they also take water birds, small mammals, crustaceans, and mollusks.
Due to habitat destruction, pollution, over-fishing, and indiscriminate persecution, their population has plummeted to a mere 5000 birds. They may also be affected by global climate change, causing flooding, and this impacts nesting sites. The Stellar’s sea eagle is a protected species, classified as vulnerable according to the IUCN.