Eagle watching opportunities abound
Wisconsin residents should have plenty of opportunities again this January and February to view bald eagles congregating along the Wisconsin, Mississippi and Fox rivers, state wildlife officials say.
Citizens can enjoy a growing number of eagle watching events in communities along these rivers as the birds move to their traditional open-water winter haunts in search of fish and other food.
New this year, local partners are putting on an eagle watching event in the Fox Valley, joining a slate of longer running celebrations and educational programs held along the other rivers: Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac and Sauk City on Jan. 18-19; Bald Eagle Days in Cassville on Jan. 26 and 27, and Eagle Day in Ferryville on March 2.
More information and links to these events, and more information about bald eagles in Wisconsin can be found on the DNR’s bald eagle page.
“They are recovering so well as a species in North America and nesting in pretty high numbers along Wisconsin’s major rivers, so there should be good opportunities to see them again this year,” says Dan Goltz, Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist based in Boscobel and part of a team that conducts annual aerial surveys along the Wisconsin River, from the Petenwell Dam to the Mississippi River.
Each winter, hundreds of bald eagles congregate along areas of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers where they feed on fish in the open water below dams. Wildlife officials say this is the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states, offering some of the best eagle viewing in the nation. Bald eagles, listed in the 1970s on state and federal endangered species lists, have recovered under protections for the species and for their nesting and feeding habits, and also with the ban on the pesticide DDT, which had contributed to poor chick hatching rtes. They were removed from the state list in 1997 and the federal list a decade later.
In recent years, concentrations of wintering bald eagles have been observed in new areas of the state. For example, in January 2012, people reported 24 eagles on Lake Monona in Madison, 68 eagles at Kaukauna, 45 at Green Bay and 50 to 100 at various agricultural fields in southwestern Wisconsin, according to the most recent eagle and osprey survey report.
Goltz says it’s hard to predict from year to year how many eagles will be seen; the number fluctuates wildly and depends a lot on ice conditions. “In years where we have really cold weather and a lot of the smaller streams and rivers flowing into Wisconsin River are frozen, the eagles that want fish for lunch are forced to concentrate on open water and the numbers will be higher than when more of the streams are open,” said Goltz.
During January 2012, there were 186 eagles counted during the survey, compared to 473 in 2011, a year with colder temperatures. The 20 year average for this survey is 196 eagles in January. This year’s aerial survey is set for Jan. 8, and Goltz expects the birds to be a little more spread out, given that there are still more streams and rivers with open water.
Ron Eckstein, a retired DNR wildlife biologist who long led eagle recovery efforts in Wisconsin, notes that the eagles congregating along Wisconsin rivers in winter are adults that typically breed in northern Minnesota and Ontario in the summer and winter down here in search of open water. The other big group of eagles to view during winter months includes immature eagles hatched earlier in the year.
Adult eagles that nest in Wisconsin are very territorial and want to stay in their territory as long as possible. “A small portion of these birds from the northern part of the state moves south into central and southern for part of the time in January,” said Eckstein.
The eagles wintering along the Fox River tend to be local Green Bay eagles. Green Bay is not as much in the migratory path of bald eagles that nest in northern Minnesota and Ontario.
Dick Nikolai, wildlife biologist in Appleton, says that the number of eagles congregating on the Fox River has been going steadily up since the first eagle was seen in the early 1990s, and the first nesting eagle was documented in the late 1980s, and has really taken off since 2008.
He attributes the rise in eagles in the Green Bay area in winter to the Fox River cleanup, the dams and paper mills along the river that create open water, a warmer winter climate and abundant gizzard shad in the Winnebago System and along the Fox River.
“Coming to work today, January 2, I saw five or six eagles so I am going to say the opportunities are definitely there,” said Nikolai.
He is working with other groups to offer the first official eagle watching day – January 26 at 1,000 Islands Environmental Center in Kaukauna. Other partners include the NE Wisconsin Alliance and various municipalities.
“The main reason we’re having the event is to alert people that we have this resource in our backyard during the winter time, and to highlight the importance of the paper industry, the locks and the cleanup that make it all possible,” he said.