Bald Eagles – Age Progression from one to five years old

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One year old Bald Eagle juvenileOne year old Bald Eagle juvenile –  Nikon D200, full frame, f/10, 1/250, ISO 400, +0.3 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 280mm, natural light, not baited

Over the past week or so I have been photographing quite a few wintering Bald Eagles of various ages, from one year old to adults, and I decided to write about the different growth stages seen in their plumage. Bald Eagles take about 5.5 years to mature to the typical white head and tail and solidly dark chocolate brown body, legs and wing feathers of an adult.

The bald eagle above is one year old and is a dark brown over all, the chest and back are a bit lighter. The eyes are a dark brown and the bill is dark with some yellow. A one year old eagle will show some white on the underside of the wings in the axillaries and coverts.

The circumstances when I photographed this eagle were pretty remarkable and I hope to do a post on it later.

Two year old Bald Eagle in flight Two year old Bald Eagle in flight – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 400, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

A two year old bald eagle has some white mottling on the chest, there is more yellow developing on the bill and the underside of the wings show extensive white feathers. The top of the head is a more golden brown than a one year old eagle exhibits and the eyes are a lighter shade of brown.

I’ve heard that a lot of bird photographers prefer to photograph only adults bald eagles because of their well known plumage but I find that I enjoy photographing all of the various plumage’s because they are; after all, the various cycles of an eagle’s life.

Three year old Bald Eagle in flightThree year old Bald Eagle in flight – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/500, ISO 400, +1.0 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 400mm, natural light, not baited

A three year old bald eagle has some white on the chest, the underside of the wings are developing more dark brown feathers. The top of the head is lighter than a three year old’s is and there is some white developing under the chin and on the neck.  They have a dark eye stripe and the eyes are paler. The bill will show more yellow and the darkness at the tip is growing lighter.

I’ve found bald eagles to be a challenge to expose correctly at all ages, when young you need enough exposure to bring out the details in the dark feathers. As adults though you also have to be concerned about the high contrasts of darks and whites and not blowing out the whites.

Perched four year old Bald EaglePerched four year old Bald Eagle – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/640, ISO 200, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC at 320mm, natural light, not baited

The four year old bald eagle above looks more like an adult, the head is nearly white with some paler brown feathers intermingling with the white. The eyes are much paler than they are when they are just yearlings. By now the bill is a solid yellow and does not show the dark tip at all of the younger stages. The tails show more white above and below. The body and wing feathers are nearly all dark including the under side of the wings.

Adult Bald Eagle in flightAdult Bald Eagle in flight – Nikon D200, f6.3, 1/1250, ISO 400, +0.7 EV, Nikkor 200-400mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light, not baited

Adult bald eagles have solid white tails plus the head and neck are also white. The eyes are very pale, almost white and the bill is a solid yellow and a bit brighter than a four year old bald eagle. The plumage of the chest, back and wings are now varying shades of dark brown.

Today the one year old bald eagle flew only 10 to 12 feet over my head and I can verify that their 80 inch wingspan is very impressive.

I’m fortunate to live in an area where the bald eagles winter over in large numbers so I can see and photograph eagles of all ages and all plumage growth stages. It’s great.

So, there you have it, a simple guide to aging Bald Eagles by their plumage development, legs and their bills with images showing the age progression.

Mia

Check out my Hawk, Eagle and Vulture Portfolios

22 Comments

  1. Holly June 5, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Started watching the Decorah Eagles last month. Can’t wait to watch fledge. Such amazing creatures.

  2. Tammy Henderson June 4, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Hi Mia, Beautiful photography! I have a question. In the 1 year photo why doesn’t the bald eagle have yellow legs/feet?

    • andiebiz June 12, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      Tammy, I am not answering for Mia, but I took a second look at what you were asking about. Looks to me that in the one yr photo, the left talon has mud dried and caked on it, the right [which one cannot see in full] looks cleaner and shows the more normal coloring [with what one can see in this particular photo.] Hope that helps 🙂

  3. Martha Barton May 28, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I have been watching the Decorah Eagles now for 3 years. D1 has a transmitter on her and I keep in touch with her where abouts. She is 3 yrs old now and just beautiful. Thanks for the info. It’s much appreciated!
    Martha Barton
    Kentucky

  4. Joanne May 14, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Mia,
    Thank you for the beautiful photos and also the interesting commentary on Eagles. Have been watching the Hays Eagles of Pittsburgh grow up. Fascinating!

  5. Barclay Martin April 30, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    Mia, thank you for the amazing pictures and wonderful information! Have learned so much watching the Decorah eagles and your pictures are outstanding! You have a true talent! Thank you!

  6. Nancy Kenna April 28, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    Oh Mia..I’ve been following the Decorah Eagles for years now and I’ve learned SO very much. And YOUR pictures have just added to the pleasures I’m experiencing. Now…when I watch our little eees growing, thanks to your pictures, I’ll have so much more insight into the stages of their lives. Thank you MIA

  7. Jan Ferguson April 25, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Amazing to be able to see what the eagles look like at each age from 1 to 5 years! Very helpful and informative to actually see each age progression! Thank you so much for sharing, providing and explaining each photo at each year of age. Jan Ferguson

  8. Kelly June 1, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Like a puppy…the one year old has over sized feet and beak. So glad he grew into his features. Lovely and no doubt time consuming series. Thank you, Mia.

  9. HERSHELL ATKINSON March 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    i believe i saw a snow white bald eagle. it was with several other regular colored eagles eating carion on my country road. it landed in a tree by the road with two other bald eagles and i passed within 40 feet of it. do they have albino eagles.

    • Mia McPherson March 28, 2013 at 6:02 am

      Hershell, Googling albino Bald Eagle did bring up some images of leucistic eagles so it is possible. You might want to contact someone from a local bird watching group and see if anyone else has reported it. It would be an awesome bird to see.

  10. LaNelle March 10, 2013 at 5:14 am

    Mia,Thanks as always for the awesome photos they should be used as great teaching ones as well! I am blessed to live on a river in Mn and see this in my backyard but no matter how many times I see it I never tire of it. Just beautiful!

  11. Marcia Powell June 18, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Stunning and breathtaking. I’m enthralled by bald eagles and have been addicted to the RRP Decorah Eagle Cam for the past 2 years. These pix just add to the amazing beauty and enjoyment I get out of watching them. Seeing your wonderful pictures are a great way to de-stress and enjoy the majesty of these gorgeous Raptors. Thank you for sharing.

    • Mia McPherson June 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm

      Thank you very much Marcia, Eagles are one of my favorite subjects to see, observe and photograph.

  12. Judy Nealson June 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Thank You for the pics of Eagles at various ages. It was very informative and I will be checking out your other postings. Again, thanks and the info along with the pics was great.

    • Mia McPherson June 10, 2012 at 6:29 am

      Thank you for visting and commenting Judy. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing the images of the various ages of Eagles.

  13. […] Bald Eagles – One to five years old […]

  14. Alicia February 18, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Great post! It’s very helpful to see photos of the different ages. We had been trying to decipher the distinguishing characteristics. Once again, you’re my greatest source for bird info.

  15. Kathleen Finnerty February 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Amazing images. The yearly markings are all unique and beautiful!

  16. Julie Brown February 16, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Another great series. The age progression is fascinating. You are fortunate to live in such a bird-rich area. I also like to photograph the various plumages throughout the life cycle. Do you find it easier to get closer to the juveniles?

  17. Harry Harris February 16, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you for the Bald Eagle series. The shots are great and the age progression is so informative. You are appreciated.

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