Eastern Iowans — like most Americans — are fascinated with bald eagles, and fortunately for them, this time of year they don’t have to travel far to watch the majestic creatures.
Drive along the Iowa, Cedar, or Mississippi rivers and trees lining the banks are likely filled with the white-crowned raptors.
While eagles typically live in the three states to the north — Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan have some of the highest eagle populations in the lower 48 states, with more than 1,000 nests each — Iowa becomes a second home during some of the winter months.
“In the wintertime, Iowa is the important state for wintering for those eagles,” said Stephanie Shepherd, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Eagles want to go only as far south as they have to find food.
“Iowa happens to be that place, where they don’t have to move too far south but have found more open water and better conditions for finding fish.”
In her job, Shepherd monitors and develops programming dedicated to “all the critters in the state you can’t hunt, fish or trap,” she said.
Bald eagles are included in that group, she said, and one of the most popular for watching.
“I think part of it is just related to them being the national bird,” she said. “They have that historical status. They were chosen as the national bird because they were well-distributed across the country and they’re one of the largest raptors — the golden eagle is its rival in size.
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“They’re very impressive in size, but also with their coloring — you know a bald eagle when you see one,” she said. “They’re incredibly awe-inspiring and fascinating to watch.”
Shepherd said the popular Decorah eagle webcam increased the birds’ popularity, giving more people a close, inside look at the eagles and their nesting habits.
“Nest watching has certainly taken off in recent years, and I do think that’s partly due to better technology and the ability to learn more,” Shepherd said.
The DNR has volunteers in place to help monitor eagle populations in Iowa, something they are able to do from a distance because the raptors’ nests are about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle car.
“You can spot them from a quarter-mile away, so you don’t have to get too close,” Shepherd said.
While the eagles are extremely territorial while nesting — bald eagles mate for life and usually return to the same nest year after year — they’re much more social in the winter, hanging out in large groups near open water.
“They’ll start nesting as soon as they possibly can, which means they’ll start to leave the area,” Shepherd said.
The eagles usually lay eggs in late February, but the peak for them in Iowa is usually March. Hatching is a little more than a month later, and the young are usually able to fledge by late May or early June, Shepherd said.
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That may seem late for avid watchers of the Decorah nest, she said — that pair doesn’t have to travel far for food because the nest is close to a trout hatchery. They usually nest earlier, which means the eggs hatch earlier than elsewhere in Iowa.
There are several eagle-watching events across the state through January and February, Shepherd said, but the birds also are watched by people just driving along the rivers.
She offers some tips for watching, keeping you and the birds safe, including being respectful of the birds and watching from a distance and not providing them food — they’re good at catching their own dinner.
“It’s best to not startle or disrupt them,” she said. “Any time they’re forced to fly, they’re expending energy they wouldn’t have otherwise needed to use. It’s best to just let them behave naturally and keep your distance.”
if you go:
Feb. 28-29 — Bald Eagle Appreciation Days, Effigy Mounds, Harpers Ferry, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien, Wis.
Viewing scopes are set up along the Mississippi River, with birding experts on hand. Friday evening programs at local hotels. Saturday programs with live bald eagles and activities for kids run 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Hoffman Hall, 1600 S. Wacouta Ave., Prairie du Chien. (608) 326-8555, extension 11, or toll-free 1- (800) 732-1673. Effigy Mounds Winter Film Festival is going on that weekend, and the Villa Louis and Fort Crawford Museum will be open for tours.