“Wow!” is the word most often heard when people see bald eagles in flight. These huge, awe-inspiring birds have been our national symbol for more than 200 years.

Winter is a great time to see these amazing birds. Locally, bald eagles are building their nests now. The female will lay eggs around February and the eaglets will hatch in April; then they will leave the nest, or fledge, in June.

Bald eagles are not bald, though. Actually, the adults’ snowy white heads are covered with white feathers, just like their tails.

But they don’t get those beautiful white feathers until they are about five years old. Until then, young eagles have brown heads and tail feathers with white speckles.

Eagles are hunters. They have terrific eyesight, much better than ours, which helps them spot food from a mile away.

Imagine being able to swoop down to catch fish with your feet and talons (claws). Bald eagles also will steal food from each other or from such birds as ospreys. They prefer fish but will eat ducks, small mammals, turtles and carrion (decaying animal carcasses) and can carry about four pounds of food while flying. That’s one huge dinner!

How many bald eagles are there?

There are about 60 kinds of eagles in the world, but bald eagles are found only in North America. (Alaska has a huge population of them; Hawaii has none.)

In the late 1960s, only 417 mating pairs were estimated to be left in the other 48 states. Many things contributed to that low number. One problem was insecticides (chemicals that kill bugs), which caused eagle eggshells to become so thin that they broke before the chicks could hatch.

Because of changes in our country’s understanding of eagles and their habitats, bald eagles are no longer on the endangered species list, but they are still protected birds.

Today, the population of these magnificent, graceful birds in the continental United States (that’s the 48 states not including Alaska and Hawaii) is approaching nearly 10,000 pairs! That means that many of us have a good chance of seeing one without ma king a trip to Alaska.

What do they sound like?

You might think that a huge, powerful bird would make a loud, powerful sound, but bald eagles actually make a high-pitched chirp, like a whistle.

Next time you see eagles in movies or on television, listen carefully. Jennifer Davis, a naturalist at Mason Neck State Park in Northern Virginia, said that sound technicians often substitute the loud squawk of a red-tailed hawk for the eagle’s call because they think it fits the eagle’s mighty appearance better. (You can compare the two sounds by checking them out at www.allaboutbirds.org, a Web site run by Cornell University. Always ask a grown-up before going online).

How are bald eagles protected?

Obviously, it would be wrong to hurt or bother a bald eagle or keep one as a pet, but did you know it also is illegal to possess the bird’s feathers or nests? Even those found on the ground! They should be turned in to park officials, who send them to a special eagle center in Colorado. People must get permits from there to use bald-eagle items for special purposes. For example, many Native American tribes use eagles, their feathers and other parts in religious ceremonies.

Where can you see eagles?

Mornings before 11 a.m. are one of the best times to find eagles fishing. Binoculars help as you look in tall trees near such bodies of water as the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay or large lakes. Bald eagles like to perch where they can keep a sharp eye out for fish.

Be very quiet when you are in an area where nesting eagles have been spotted, so you don’t disturb them.

In the past month, bald eagles have been spotted near the Tidal Basin in Washington and in Silver Spring, Gaithersburg, Rosslyn, Lorton and Reston.

Seeing these amazing animals in person may leave you speechless — or may have you saying just one word: “Wow.”

TO DO: Places to see eagles

LEARN MORE: Amazing eagle facts

—Ann Cameron Siegal