Outdoors

Eagles are closer than you think

Wildside column: Road trips are not necessary for watching these birds

A bald eagle takes flight Feb. 29 from a perch in a Buchanan County timber where as many as 70 eagles have been congrega
A bald eagle takes flight Feb. 29 from a perch in a Buchanan County timber where as many as 70 eagles have been congregating this winter. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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QUASQUETON — My wife recently suggested we drive to the Mississippi for one of the winter eagle-viewing events.

Get in the pickup, I said, and I’ll show you 100 eagles on a 10-minute drive around home.

Their presence came to my attention during frequent drives through the countryside, which I justify as scouting trips for turkeys and pheasants — information that could prove useful during future hunting seasons.

You could also call it killing time, of which I have plenty in the waning weeks of winter.

Though game bird sightings have been rare, the throngs of eagles — more than I remember in past winters — have kept my “scouting” tours interesting.

Their size makes them easy to see — that and their status as apex predators, with no enemies to fear and no reason to hide.

Roosting in the bare upper branches of big trees, standing tall in snow-covered crop fields, casting ominous shadows as they flap across the winter landscape, they are visible as far as the eye can see.

Most of the eagles wintering in Iowa have come south in search of food from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada, said Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity biologist Stephanie Shepherd, who coordinates an annual January survey conducted since 1994.

DNR staff members and volunteers, traveling 52 specific routes along Iowa’s river corridors, counted 3,611 eagles this winter — most of them near the Mississippi, Missouri, Des Moines, Iowa and Cedar rivers, she said.

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The totals fluctuate between 3,000 and 4,000 eagles per winter, with the higher counts occurring during the more severe winters. Based on the approximately 400 active eagle nests in the state, Iowa may have as many as 1,000 year-round resident eagles.

Shepherd estimates the annual surveys count from half to three-fourths of the eagles wintering in Iowa. The count probably does not include the ones on my scouting route, which are attracted not by the prospect of easy fishing near open water but by dead piglets disposed of in the fields surrounding hog confinement facilities.

During a typical scouting tour, I may see a half dozen singles and doubles, but the big numbers always are in groves of trees near confinements.

At one such site, regularly frequented by 16 to 20 eagles, the treetop sitters can see three hog barns, one or more of which always has eagles standing or stooping in a nearby field.

In a five-acre timber near two swine facilities, as many as 70 eagles congregate, their white heads looking like ornaments in the dark trees around the perimeter.

With the famous Decorah eagles now laying eggs, the northern visitors’ nests must be beckoning, and on each succeeding visit I expect them to be gone.

As of Wednesday, however, the day of this writing, the procreant urge had yet to overcome their appetite for pork.

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