- Associated Press - Thursday, January 8, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Lake Mead National Recreation Area is one of the busiest national park units in the country. Last year, it welcomed 6.3 million visitors.

During the winter when boating tapers off, a different kind of visitor moves in that holds national importance.

This is the time when volunteers gather annually at Lake Mead to count bald eagles that have migrated to the area for the winter.

Just after dawn recently, the crew loaded up and prepared for eight hours on the waters of Lake Mead.

The crew’s destination was far from the shoreline of Hemenway Harbor on a trip in search of America’s national symbol.

“Today we’re doing a mid-winter bald eagle count,” said Christy Klinger, a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “It’s a nationwide effort, there’s people all over the United States doing the same thing, around the same time of year.”

Klinger helped volunteers get acclimated to the job ahead. The volunteers spent the day looking for birds, which look tiny when perched along the rocky shore of Lake Mead. They searched the rocks and shoreline for a glimpse of the eagles that, in most cases, take an eagle eye to find.

“A lot of people don’t know it takes four years before a bald eagle achieves that classic adult plumage; otherwise they’re mostly brown,” Klinger said.

When the eagles are young it is not easy to spot them, but the search hold some excitement.

“It’s pretty much exciting every time, they’re only here for a couple of months, and it’s always enjoyable to come out and see them,” said Tom Culler with the National Park Service.

Culler has participated in the count for nearly 20 years. He was leading volunteers past burros, coyotes and the silhouette of big horn sheep, but it’s the bald eagle the spotters are counting.

The job requires a lot of patience.

“The tricky part is getting close enough to the beach to give the observers a good chance to spot the eagles without putting the boat on the rocks,” Culler said

The nationwide count will give scientists a better understanding of how bald eagles are doing overall, and provide information on breeding and habitat trends. Bald eagles no longer appear on the federal endangered species list, but they are protected.

While the eagles generally leave the area by February, a few years ago scientists spotted a nesting pair that stuck around full time. Unfortunately, the hot summer that year was not ideal for the offspring.

“They had oriented their nest in a hot place and the eaglet didn’t make it that year,” Klinger said.

That nest was a hopeful sign that the eagles of Lake Mead will continue to thrive for generations to come.

A total of 91 eagles were counted on Jan. 6 at Lake Mead. Officials with the Park Service said the number is lower than last year, given warmer conditions to the north and the inability to reach certain areas of the lake because of low water levels.

Bald eagles in other parts of the national recreation area haven’t been counted yet.

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Information from: KSNV-TV, https://www.mynews3.com/index.php

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