Conservation turns eagles into major attraction along Mississippi River

February 10, 2019 GMT

ALMA, Wis. — High above a distant river bluff peak, a pair of dark lines wheel through the sky.

“That’s the golden,” says Scott Mehus, naturalist and education director for the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. The birds, probably half a mile away, appear as lines in the sky. But, as Mehus notes, even at a distance you can tell the difference between the birds. Bald eagles soar with their wings essentially straight out. Golden eagles’ wings are slanted slightly upward.

Not as much as the turkey vulture, but they are rarely spotted on the first weekend in February.

About two dozen individuals listened as Mehus explained the differences in the birds, encouraged those without zoom cameras or binoculars to use the Eagle Center’s spotting scope, and generally conducted a beginner’s course on eagles on the side of Buffalo County Road NN.

Pat Undersander, who is on an anniversary trip with her husband, Hal, from St. Cloud, said they were thrilled to book the Golden Eagle Viewing Field Trip as part of their celebration. A second trip for golden eagles is scheduled for Feb. 16.

“What I’m most surprised about is their weight,” Undersander said, adding she thought the birds, both bald and golden, weighed much more. “But I guess they’re all feathers.”

As an Army veteran, Ken Weber of Manly, Iowa, said eagles have a special place in his heart. “I spent 21 years in the service,” Weber said. “So I am very proud of the eagle.”

Weber said there are four nesting pairs near where he lives in Iowa, but the field trip really brought the birds front and center. That included a pair of bald eagles feeding on a roadkill raccoon. The birds flew into the nearby trees when the bus arrived, stopping on the road. Out filed some tour members, cameras ready.

In addition to the eagles, the group witnessed everything from a bobcat and a coyote to a rough-legged hawk and some horned larks. Mehus said one of the goals of the field trips is to see the habitat of the eagles as a whole.

Rolf Thompson, executive director of the Eagle Center, said that when he studied ornithology in the 1970s, it was believed that golden eagles did not live in the Upper Mississippi River. If one was spotted, it was considered blown off course or lost.

“Now this survey shows there is a wintering population,” Thompson said. “We know a lot about golden eagle behaviors, such as why we need goat prairies (south-facing tops of bluffs) to manage without overgrowth of eastern red cedars.”

The trees, he said, provide cover for prey, so open goat prairies give the golden eagles a chance to find the food they need.

Mehus said the idea that golden eagles didn’t live in this region was prevalent when he started counting birds in Southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

“I started watching golden eagles 25 years ago in this area, and I was finding more than anyone ever reported,” Mehus said. “So that’s why I started this survey 15 years ago to get people out looking for them.”

While the counts taken each year provide a nice snapshot of the birds in the area, what’s more important is what the Eagle Center has learned about the winter habitat and feeding needs of the birds. First, they aren’t the fishers that bald eagles are. Rather, they live in upland valleys. Unlike the bald eagles, which feed primarily on fish or carrion, golden eagles hunt rabbits, squirrels or even other birds, some as large as wild turkeys.

Those animals all have fairly good eyesight, especially compared to a fish in the water or a dead deer on the side of the road.

“So you need to be a little more secluded or hidden,” Mehus said.

A few years back, Mehus took a group of 25 officials from the Department of Natural Resources into a valley where two golden eagles were nesting. “It took them 10 minutes to find one of the birds,” he said. “Often you won’t see them until they fly.”

And while the bald eagle has become a conservation success story, being removed from the endangered species list in 2007, the golden eagle’s numbers look to be falling off just a bit, Mehus said. “We really don’t understand the reason why.”

Between the two birds, the National Eagle Center plays an important role in both education and conservation. Both birds face threats, and both have their own unique needs for habitat.

That’s why, each year, the Eagle Center, makes counts of both species. For the golden eagle, it’s one day in January. Bald eagles are counted as well, and counted at several sites along the Mississippi River each week.

“We had 145 this year,” Mehus said, adding previous high counts were 149 and 148. “While we’re doing the golden eagle survey, we’re also counting bald eagles. We counted more than 1,300 bald eagles in one day. There was a time in the 70s, when there were just 474 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states.”

Each winter, as the golden eagle migrates back to Southeast Minnesota from northern Canada along the Labrador Sea in Newfoundland, Northern Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Mehus will be educating survey teams on how to spot a golden eagle to get that accurate count in January.

Then each February he’ll lead groups out into the bluffland valleys.

“We had a bald eagle and a golden eagle in the same tree within three feet of each other,” Mehus said, describing the end of his trip last week. “This doesn’t happen that often, so it was very cool to share with everyone.”