Winter Tips for Spotting Birds of Prey
By Dana Reckelhoff, Interpretive Naturalist at Patoka Lake Nature Center
Photos By Frank Oliver, DNR
Winter is when many birders come out to Patoka Lake to capture photos of birds of prey, especially bald eagles. In the summer season, these birds stay close to their nest sites as they raise their young, but when the weather turns cooler, they can be found miles away from their nests.
Once the young fledge (or leave) their nest during the summer, the entire family is free to move around. Territory expands as temperatures drop. A raptor’s territory might be 1 to 6 square miles in the summer, but it could expand drastically in a harsh winter. This is why I often tell guests to keep their eyes open in winter because the opportunities to see birds of prey are everywhere. The birds fly right over the Nature Center during mid-day and hang out over roadways on the lookout for fresh roadkill.
Bald eagles are one of the raptors visiting Patoka during the cold season. These birds are coming from the northern United States and Canada. If the water in their home range freezes and food becomes scarce due to the cold, they must migrate south to find open water and available resources. Golden eagles are a rarer species that can sometimes be found on site.
Remember to keep a safe distance when looking for birds. The observer should remain at least 330 feet away from an active nest. This is because in winter, courtship behaviors and nest repairs begin. If an adult leaves the nest in winter while keeping the eggs warm, the young inside will not develop. If spooked from the nest before their flight feathers fully develop, they can become injured while falling from the nest. It is integral that viewers respect the necessary space these birds require. If the viewer is getting a response from them, they are likely too close.
There are many safe places to view wild raptors at Patoka. We often see eagles in the trees along the shoreline of Highway 164 and near the causeway on Highway 145. The most beautiful pair of red-shouldered hawks greets guests as they drive up Dillard Road to enter the property. Great horned owls are often heard hooting from the parking lot of the Patoka Lake Office. A Cooper’s hawk stays loyal to the modern campground and fitness trail in winter. The best advice I have is to keep your eyes and ears tuned everywhere you go. Enjoy the slow drive through the property or a hike along the trails. You are bound to see one of these fierce aerial hunters along your route.
If you were never good at hide-and-seek, come see our educational ambassador birds. The Patoka Lake Nature Center is home to a bald eagle, red-tailed hawk and eastern screech owl that have wing injuries that left them flightless. These birds can be viewed on special days in the backyard shelters.
Our staff has plans to build a new raptor center for the birds. Currently, these birds are only able to be viewed on special occasions. With the completion of our new raptor center, guests will be able to see the birds any day the center is open. The new center will feature much more comfortable and safe living conditions for the birds as well.
We at Patoka Lake, along with the Indiana Natural Resources Foundation, are currently raising funds for the new shelter. Every donation gets us closer to our goal and closer to improving these magnificent birds’ dwelling and expanding the opportunity to teach visitors about the birds year-round. You can make a difference by donating here!
Check the event calendar for current raptor viewing dates at calendar.dnr.IN.gov.