Across Lake Thunderbird, the Southern bald eagle perched on one of the scrubby trees that lined the far side of the lake. On an opposite shore, a group of visitors stared through binoculars and peered naked-eyed at America's bird, excited to have the opportunity to just see it.
Suddenly, with a wingspan that can reach nearly 6 feet, the eagle launched into the air and dove into the water, emerging with a fish. Just as quickly, it returned to the tree and began its feast.
"It stunned everyone," said Kathy Furneaux, park naturalist at Lake Thunderbird State Park. "When they fly, it's just so majestic to watch. People are thrilled when they get to see one, and they are so much larger than people expect."
Every year, Oklahomans have the brief chance to view the Southern bald eagle, a winter visitor to the state. According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, an average of 830 eagles migrate to the state's lakes and reservoirs each year during the season, attracted by more moderate winters and water that doesn't freeze.
Taking advantage of the annual migration, Oklahoma's state parks host eagle-watching events throughout the winter, and many have cozy little cabins for overnight stays. But as winter thaws, the opportunities to view fly away, too.
Oklahoma's natural and man-made lakes and rivers are ideal for the bald eagles, which arrive in mid-October and stay until roughly mid-March.
Most of the state's lakes can boast of eagles, which settle as far away as the Great Salt Plains north of Enid to as close as Arcadia Lake in Edmond and Lake Thunderbird in Norman.
"There are 17 eagle-watching events this winter all across the state, from the northeast to the southwest," said Kristen Gillman, information specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "You can see the eagles all day long, and (they) can be viewed any time of the day."
The highest concentration of the eagles can be found at Kaw Lake, Lake Texoma and the Great Salt Plains, among other sites. Along the spillways at the dams are the most reliable places to view them, due to the concentration of fish in the area.
"We average 830 eagles each winter, but in 1991, we had as high as 1,540 migrate to the state," Gillman said. "It can be very awe-inspiring, because they are one of the largest birds of prey in the world. It can be pretty spectacular to see the nation's symbol in real life, and in Oklahoma, we only get to see them for a short time."
Most of the lakes and state parks offer activities on eagle migration. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge will lead tours Sunday and Monday, and Feb. 7-8. The Chickasaw National Recreation Area will lead a tour Saturday. Closer to home, Lake Thunderbird has tours scheduled for Saturday and Feb. 13. Visitors should make reservations early, as tour spots fill quickly.
"You have a better chance seeing bald eagles at Lake Thunderbird during cold winters like this one," Furneaux said. "They will fly more south, stopping at the first unfrozen body of water they find. We don't have any nesting sites here; most of our eagles are migratory."
Oklahoma's love affair with the bird hasn't always been glorious.
Bald-eagle populations in this area of the country first declined when the buffalo herds were killed off in the 1800s, which meant less buffalo carcasses to feed upon. Infamously, DDT and other toxins nearly killed off the species again in the 1960s. The pesticides used in the 1950s and '60s began collecting in the fish and small animals that eagles feed upon, which caused the birds to lay eggs with paper-thin shells, with thousands either broken or defunct.
According to the state wildlife department, efforts to protect the American bald eagle are paying off. With the banning of chemicals like DDT, the bird has made a dramatic recovery in the last 30 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the bald eagle from the threatened-species in 2007, and in Oklahoma that same year, 49 nesting pairs were recorded.
"You can usually see the highest numbers of eagles in January and February," Gillman said.
For more information, visit www.wildlifedepartment.com/eagletours2.htm.