Welcome to the Mississippi River Winter Eagle Watch!

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Birders craving an excuse to "head on down to the river" during the months of December through March, take note! The major concentrations of American bald eagles in the entire continental U.S. now winter near the open waters at the Locks and Dams of the Mississippi River--and from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, organized public eagle watches are celebrating one of our nation’s brightest environmental come-backs.


Winter Bald Eagle Watching Along the Mississippi River

by Pat Middleton



 Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Keokuk


Throughout the month of January, many river towns promote organized eagle watches staffed with volunteer interpreters, spotting scopes, and educational displays. The first "EAGLE WATCH" along the Mississippi River was organized in Keokuk, Iowa, in 1985. 

Similar events have become popular all along the river. When a pair of bald eagles nested along the river in Kentucky in 1986, they were the first nesting pair in over forty years!

According to writer Megan Spees, Tom Buckley, director of Lee County Conservation Board, said four members of the conservation board counted about 570 eagles out on the Mississippi River on Christmas Day in 2010. Buckley said that in a span of 10 to 15 minutes on recently, he counted approximately 45 birds below Lock and Dam No. 19, Keokuk, Iowa. 

Other organized "watches" during the year include the TUNDRA SWAN watches in November. Harry Buck of Alma organized the first swan watch at Rieck's Park north of Alma, Wisconsin, after he heard a visitor videotaping 4,000 tundra swans saying that "all the noise was coming from these egrets."

Which reminds me of the time I was giving a talk on one of the cruise boats and a big eagle swooped right in to grab a fish out of the water beside the boat.

"An osprey!" someone called out.

 Another visitor countered, "I don't know what it is, but I know damn well it's not an ostrich!"

Eagle facts:

The "bald" in the name Bald Eagle refers to its white head or "balde" head in Old English.

Male eagles in Tennessee weigh 6-9 pounds, females are 20-30% larger. In the north eagles are slightly larger. A female could weigh 16 pounds. Their diet is 80-90% fish with a few rabbits and ducks thrown in. Nests are about five feet wide; the young fledge at10-12 weeks. Sexually mature at 4-5 years. They mate for life, but will re-mate when one mate dies.

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Important Eagle Watching Tips

The best eagle viewing occurs when it is cold enough to freeze large stretches of river so that eagles must concentrate at specific feeding areas. Mild winters mean eagles are more widely dispersed and spotting them is that much more difficult.

For eagle watchers, the combination of guides, equipment, and an opportunity to view "up close and personal" the many wintering eagles along the Mississippi River has proven irresistible. Eagle watch volunteers need to carefully monitor the interaction between viewers and eagles.

"Humans," says Pat Schlarbaum, "must also do their part. We need to learn to watch, but not disturb. We in Iowa feel strongly that we are only acting as hosts for these marvelous creatures. Come March, we want them returning to their nesting sites in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada, in good health. Therefore we need to take a holistic view…protecting the quality of the water and the fish, the air, the trees." To that end, Pat offers these suggestions to eagle watchers:

Above all, do not disturb the birds. Eagles spend about 98% of their time roosting or perching. Loud noises, movement, trying to approach to closely will cause the birds to fly away, thus wasting valuable energy needed just to hunt and survive.

Use spotting scopes and binoculars so you can stay a good 100-400 feet away from the birds. They are visible with the naked eye, but to really view their bright yellow beaks and piercing eyes, the truly beautiful white head and tail feathers, binoculars are best.

Stay in a parked car when viewing so that your movements don’t frighten them. Birds are most susceptible when roosting and roosting areas must not be disturbed at night.

If you find an injured or dead eagle, leave it where you found it and call your local DNR. Though no longer endangered, eagles are still listed as threatened, and it is against the law to kill them for any reason.


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