Strained eyes peering through a pair of field glasses spot a mass perched in a tree. It's a juvenile, but still what they came to see.
Its mass sits on a large limb just like the symbol that is portrayed on the back of a quarter. That's what they're here to see-- the symbol in flight.
The winter bald eagle viewing trips have once again landed at Land Between the Lakes.
A few seconds later one of the tour guides spots an eagle soaring low over the bay. Then, in just a blink of an eye, it dives at the glare on the water and catches a fish.
Then it sinks in. You are miles and miles away from the nearest house, the nearest paved road, and just witnessed perhaps one of the greatest feats in all of nature.
"An eagle can see over a mile," John Workman, one of the tour guides (also called interpreters, for obvious reasons), said. "They are remarkable. And they are one of nature's great hunters."
The eagles are remarkable, but what might be just as remarkable is the chance to see them.
For several years now, thousands of people from all over the world have come to this remote spot in western Kentucky for bald eagle viewing trips. The trips are only offered in the winter when the migratory eagles drop into our neck of the woods.
We were part of the very first tour group of the season Saturday, and despite temperatures that didn't really get above the freezing mark, the whole experience proved to be enjoyable.
The groups move by three 15-passenger vans to their destinations.
After embarking from the Nature Station-- located about 12 miles north of U.S. 68/80, we first headed to the backside of a small inland lake where the eagles tend to roost at night.
Since it was after nine in the morning, our group missed the eagles, so we moved to the next location, Duncan Bay (on Kentucky Lake), where the eagles feed and sometimes nest.
We spent the majority of our time on the bay watching the eagles. The birds might have been a little greater of a distance than we would like, but the point was that you were seeing them in their natural habitat. And you were seeing that habitat undisturbed by us gawkers.
"Look for a golf ball in a tree," our guide, Kelly Wehrheim, said. "And the top third of the trees are the best places to find them."
A smile was on the face of one of the women who looked through one of the large scopes on tripods the tour guides brought.
"Wow," she said. "You forget the how cold it is when you see them."
Leaves rattle as the group members jockey around their permitted-to-walk portion of the bay for a better view of the eagles. Without a doubt, this was the portion of the trip everyone liked best.
The van rides, which lack any real breathtaking beauty because of the winter season, are long, and it is suggested that if you have motion sickness or had too much for breakfast to sit up front.
To make up for the long rides our guide, Kelly, passed around what she called "props" and gave us tips on where and how to find the birds.
The props were a way to get close to the birds that we wouldn't dare touch in the wild. Especially since it is illegal to have an eagle feather or claw in your possession. One prop was the massive tail feather of the bird.
Another was a replica of just how large an eagle claw can be. To illustrate how strong an eagle's grip is, Kelly gave us all a metal squeeze toy with a gauge; it's real name is a dynamometer, and had the group members to squeeze really hard on the handle to see how many pounds per square inch of pressure we have in our grips. Most were well below 100 and the highest was 130 psi.
An eagle's grip is well over 1,000. That's enough to crush right through a baseball.
Even though the van rides might seem a little long, they are educational and a great way to give more perspective to the marvels you are there to view.
At the last site we visited, nearby Smith Bay, we saw ducks, geese and gulls fly by us, but no eagles.
The guides were in consensus that the viewing Saturday morning was good to average, but each day and each tour brought something different.
"We basically go to the same places, but in a different order," Kelly said. "It kind of depends on the time of day, where they will be feeding and even the weather.
"Right now it is warmer in Minnesota than normal," she said, "but when the temperatures drop we could expect many more eagles to migrate here. The scope of eagle viewing is constantly changing."
So, you never really know what you will see or what you will get, but remember to watch the weather before you go, wrap up tight and to bring binoculars and cameras with at least 400X zoom capabilities if you have them.
Also, keep in mind that there is some light hiking involved, but it is not too cumbersome and the tour guides are very helpful. One guide stopped about every 20 feet to show us frost flowers coming out of the forest floor, so there will be no sense of urgency to hike in and out of Duncan Bay.
Remember, you could see more eagles at a closer range on the Discovery Channel, but to see it in person puts gives you a completely different perspective. And that's more than worth some cold hands and toes.
From LBL for side bar or graphic
Van trips meet and depart from the Nature Station. Visitors are advised to dress appropriately for the weather and moderate walking.
Also don't forget to bring binoculars and field guides. Check-in is recommended 15 minutes before departure time. Reservations and full deposits are required for all trips. The eagle excursions are popular, so early reservations are encouraged.
Land Between The Lakes is managed by the USDA Forest Service, one of the nation's leading providers of outdoor recreation. For more information on LBL's eagle viewing excursions and reservations, call weekdays 270-924-2020. For additional LBL information, call 1-800-LBL-7077 or 270-924-2000, or visit us on the Internet at www.lbl.org.
To reserve your space, call weekdays, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., 270-924-2020.
Van Tours: Morning and afternoon van tours are available. Moderate walking required. Meet and depart from the Nature Station. $5 ages 12 & under, $7 ages 13 & up. Jan. 20, 1-4 p.m. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; Feb. 1, 9 a.m.-12 noon & 1-4 p.m. Feb. 2, 9 a.m.-12 noon Feb. 17, 1-4 p.m. President's Day (Departs from Golden Pond Visitor Center).