A majestic bald eagle is lighted on a tree limb on the bank of the Cumberland River in Donelson on the day after Christmas. Resident Ron Rice caught an image of the eagle about 50 feet from his lake home. RON RICE

It’s a rare sight indeed to see the nation’s national symbol soaring above so close and majestic.

The day after Christmas, local Ron Rice got a bonus Christmas present via the sky when he spotted not one but two bald eagles streak across the blue sky putting on a show for his wife and him.

"One of our neighborhood bald eagles came for a visit just now,” he said that day. “What a beautiful sight. It first flies up river and then turns around to come back at us and joins another one for a bit of playful chase.”

Rice lives on the Cumberland River in Donelson and grew up in the city.

“He was perched on a tree in my backyard,” he said, “on the bank of the river, probably 50 feet from the house.”

Rice said the back of their house has all windows, and they saw the eagle fly into a tree.

Rice is one of the lucky ones, especially around the Donelson area.

“Yes, we see them quite frequently,” he said. “We see the juvenile eagles more often than this adult beauty, but we do see the adults several times a year.”

Rice said he could not spot a nest in the area.

If the beauty Rice had the luck to see was really large, most likely it was a female, which are larger than the adult male. Their wingspan varies from 6-8 feet.

The bald eagle has a fascinating history in the country. The Continental Congress declared the bald eagle as the nation’s symbol June 20, 1782. Lore has it Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey.

According to Bob Hatcher, a long-time consultant to the American Eagle Foundation and retired TWRA endangered species coordinator, the eagle’s diet is 70%-90% fish.

Local Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency communications and outreach coordinator Barry Cross said that’s why Rice had the opportunity to see the neighborhood eagle.

“They are drawn to water as a food source,” he said.

He said, yes, there are eagles in Tennessee.

“They are coming back because of our hatching program started in the 1970’s.,” said Cross.

Eagle nesting disappeared for 22 years in Tennessee because of the DDT insecticide, said Hatcher in a report.

The poison caused the eggs to become infertile or their thin shells would break under the weight of the adults.

According to research, there were 14 active nests at Reelfoot Lake in 1954 and 1955. However, Tennessee had no known successful eagle nests from 1961-83.

Cross said hatching took place and produced eaglets about 8 weeks old that were placed in artificial nests in Tennessee. They were released when they were about 12-13 weeks old, when their first flight is assured.

Cross said Rice’s spotting during mid-winter is on point.

“Eagles from up north migrate south in the winter,” he said. “Some spotted around here are either resident eagles here to breed or are migrating.”

Cross said the fact Rice didn’t spot a nest was normal. He said eagles can fly a great distance in a day.

“Nests look like a huge cone in a tree,” he said. “They can be 3-6 feet wide and weigh 2,000 pounds.”

Eagles will reuse a nest year after year, and they grow each year as the eagle builds an addition.

Rice said though he’s not lately heard of an eagle spotting in Donelson or the general area, he’s heard of sightings in Cumberland County, Ashland City, Williamsport, Tims Ford and Reelfoot Lake.

“Tennessee’s winter population peaks at 300-500 eagles,” Hatcher said. “One mid-January record showed 463 eagles counted.”

Reelfoot, Dale Hollow, Kentucky, Chickamauga, Watts Barr and Pickwick lakes are the usual bodies of water where the majestic creatures live.

“Well, one day I was in Lawrenceburg driving to the farmers market, and I looked out the window, and a bald eagle was not far away keeping pace with me,” said Cross.

He said it’s not unusual, but not often common, to see eagles in Middle Tennessee.

In the Mt. Juliet area, a resident north of the city spotted an eagle from her lakeside home several times the past few years. A local sports writer told readers he spotted an eagle’s nest some years ago near Cedar Creek recreational area.

Cross said in the past five years out on the road for TWRA, he’s had the fortune to spot six eagles.

Rice is one lucky birdwatcher.

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