Column: Going to the places where the eagles perch

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 3, 2006

Besides being our national symbol, the eagle serves as one of the most interesting birds to observe during the winter months. Unlike so many birds which fly south during the colder months of the year, the eagles congregate at several places in the Upper Midwest. And one of their favorite places is around Wabasha on the Mississippi River.

The big river might be frozen over this time of the year. Yet, just north of Wabasha the Chippewa River flows form the Wisconsin side into the Mississippi. This convergence of those two rivers results in an area of open water. Thus, the large birds have a prime place to gather and fish for food. The people in Wabasha have taken advantage of this particular situation and organized the National Eagle Center, plus a nearby outdoor observation platform or deck overlooking the river.

People seem to eager to see these big birds perched in trees, and hopefully diving down to the surface of the water to grab a fish with their talons. As a result, Wabasha and several riverside towns have become prime destinations for eagle watchers.

Email newsletter signup

Communities along the Mississippi and even the Wisconsin Rivers have utilized the fact people

like to see those eagles during winter months. This has increased business activity in those towns during what used to be the slow time of the year.

Those eagles like to spend their winters at places on the rivers where dams are located. The open water below the spillways attract the fish to places where oxygen is more plentiful. This results in better fishing to feed the hungry eagles.

Localities near those river dams like Red Wing, Winona, Cassville and Prairie du Chein, Wis., Dubuque, Guttenberg, Muscatine and Keokuk, Iowa, Rock Island and Quincy, Ill., and a place called Sauk Prairie have really capitalized on a cold weather phenomenon called eagle watching.

Incidentally, don’t look for a place called Sauk Prairie on any map. This name is used as a

combination for Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, twin towns on the Wisconsin River between Baraboo and Madison. According to a recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, during last year’s six-weeks of prime winter eagle watching, 50,000 people added $1.2 million to the local economy.

A hydroelectric plant and dam on the river at Sauk Prairie creates an area of open water. This attracts several hundred eagles on a fish diet, which in turn attracts so many people wanting to watch the eagles.

Various winter events have been organized in the riverside towns to promote the watching and appreciating of our national symbol. Several of these special events aren’t too far from here.

From Feb. 11 to March 19 Eagle Spot Weekends will take place in Red Wing. The hours are 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in Colvill Park just south of Red Wing on U.S. Highway 61. For more information call 1-800-498-3444.

On March 11 an Eagle Field Trip will take place in Wabasha. Then, on March 17 to 19, Soar With

the Eagles will have many events. For more information and a schedule call 1-877-332-4537.

One detail I’ve avoided up to now is based on the full extent of the eagle’s diet. These big birds

also dine on what could be described as incredible inedibles, like road kill and other offal choices. For this reason folks in the Albert Lea area can sometimes

see eagles, even during this time of the year when there are still places with open water.

To confirm this, I checked with Al Batt. He said five eagles were recorded during the Christmas bird count within a 15-mile radius of Albert Lea. Al added that several of these eagles have likely migrated over to the river since then. However, at least two of the big birds are still active on the east and south sides of Albert Lea Lake.

It’s going to be interesting to see how many eagles return to this area in the spring, and how many of their huge nests will result.

(Tribune feature writer Ed Shannon’s columns run Friday.)