Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eagles return

"Take a good look at that eagle, because you may never see one again."

That is what my father told me whenever we would see a bald eagle as we canoed through the Boundary Waters or Quetico when I was very young. At that time, DDT was still being used in the US, and eagles were so rare in the lower 48 states, that my father warned us that they might be gone forever.

I have never forgotten his words, and still marvel at how common eagles are today. I have seen them perched on a light over University Ave, flying over Lot 60 on the UW campus, and frequently on the Wisconsin River. They have been removed from the Endangered Species list, and Wisconsin exports eggs to other states to help them boost their populations.

Seeing a bald eagles is still is thrill, with their seven foot wing spans, white heads and tails, and motionless, seemingly effortless soaring flight. But we are no longer telling out kids that they may never be able to see our national symbol in the wild, and to me, that is quite a thrill in itself.

Yesterday I went with a couple of friends to attend Eagle Watch Days in Sauk City and Prairie du Sauk. I've only been once before, but have seen bald eagles many times along the Wisconsin River. As a matter of fact, it's unusual to go to the area, at any time of year, and NOT see bald eagles. Wouldn't you know, last year I took a friend up there in the middle of winter, sure we'd see eagles, and not one could be found.

Because the best time to see bald eagles in the area is early morning (dawn - 8 AM) on a very cold day (when it's less than 10 degrees, you might see severqal dozen just hanging out in the trees), yesterday's trip wasn't an ideal trip to spot eagles. We didn't get up there until almost 11 AM, and then we spent a couple hours at the high school, listening to a lecture on raptors and asking questions of the person from the Raptor Center in Minnesota. By the time we got out to the river, it was almost 1 PM.

As we walked through Prairie du Sauk, we saw an adult eagle perched in a tree on "Eagle Island" - a small sand bar in the Wisconsin River with a few trees adjacent to the downtown. This is a common place to see eagles, so common that the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council has set up a permanent spotting scope on a platform next to a parking lot, so everyone can take a look.

When we visited the VFW landing and the dam on the river - common places to see eagles fishing - we had no luck. Despite signs and many warnings at all the events, people were wandering around the shore of the river. The eagles aren't bothered by cars, but get spooked by people on foot, so a bunch of eagle watchers along the shore is a sure signs you aren't likely to see anything.

For a change of scenery and activity, we headed to Wollersheim Winery to enjoy a little of their fine product. There are eagle nests and roosts on the bluffs behind the winery, so we thought maybe we could spy some there as well. As we were driving across the Hwy 60 bridge, we saw a car pulled over on the shoulder and people with binoculars and cameras. Sure enough, there was an immature eagle perched on a tree on the far side of the river.

When we reached the winery, there was a small group of people staring up towards the bluffs with binoculars. A mature eagle was soaring over the bluffs and behind the trees. As we stood looking up, another fly into view, so we had two soaring eagles to watch.

After the wine tasting, we wandered out to a small pavilion with info and photos of eagles. There is a pair of binoculars for the public to use and tips on spotting eagles. As we poked around and took photos of the vineyard under snow, another eagle came into view even closer than the last two. Wollersheim turned out to be a great place to see these wonderful birds. And in better weather, you can enjoy a bottle of wine while sitting in this beautiful setting.

We thought we'd head back to downtown, as a friend had said late afternoon was a good time to see mating behavior or watch as the eagles come back in to perch for the night. At the VFW landing, we did spy an immature bird fly in and perch across the river near the dam, but it was fairly far away, so we decided to give downtown one last try. There, a mature bird had come in for the evening, and many people were excitedly passing around binoculars and jockeying to use the permanent spotting scope as well as several portable ones brought in for the event. We were pretty much done spotting eagles for the day, so we finally headed home.

I have been to the area on very cold days, when the eagles conserve their energy by simply hanging out in the trees all day. On the coldest days, when no one wants to be out wandering along the river, you may see a dozen eagles on that little sandbar off downtown.  It's a mighty impressive sight, and reserved for only the hardy, but to see even one eagle so close to human development is still a thrill to me, remembering my father's word.