Wisconsin’s growing bald eagle population – a record number of breeding pairs and occupied nests were recorded in 2013 – and a hard, early freeze are combining to create fantastic viewing opportunities this winter for the nation’s symbol in many parts of Wisconsin, state eagle experts say.
Eagle watchers will find plenty of opportunities at the growing number of organized eagle watching events this winter in Wisconsin along the Wisconsin, Mississippi and Fox rivers, as well as at open water areas along other state lakes and rivers, says Carly Lapin, conservation biologist with DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation and monitoring coordinator for bald eagles.
“The amount of open water is limited because it’s been so cold, so the eagles are really concentrated as they search for fish,” Lapin says. “It will be easier for people to see them and there should be some great viewing opportunities in many parts of Wisconsin.”
Eagle watching events and presentations are set at communities including:
• A Bald Eagle Watching Bus Tour on Jan. 11 and Bald Eagle Watching Days in Prairie du Sac and Sauk City on Jan. 17-18;
• Eagles on Ice in Alma on Jan. 18;
• Bald Eagle Days in Cassville on Jan. 26 and 27;
• Bald Eagle Appreciation Day in Prairie du Chien on Feb. 23; and
• Eagle Day in Ferryville on March 2.
Links to more information on these events, a slide show and video about eagles as well as fast facts, can be found on the eagle feature page of the DNR website.
People can find eagles congregating at open water areas along the Wisconsin, Mississippi and Fox rivers, and at other open water areas on lakes and rivers with big trees along the shoreline, Lapin says.
The eagles feed on fish in the open water below dams. The Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers, in fact, boast the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
Bald eagles, listed as endangered in the 1970s on both state and federal endangered species lists, have recovered after regulations were put in place to protect the species and its nesting and feeding habitat, and also following a ban on the pesticide DDT, which had contributed to poor chick hatching rates. They were removed from the state list in 1997 and the federal list a decade later.
The population of bald eagles in Wisconsin has literally taken off, from only 108 breeding pairs in the 1970s to a record 1,343 documented in April, 2013 surveys. DNR staff team up with DNR pilots to conduct the surveys every year, one of the nation’s longest running aerial surveys, and in 2013, found occupied eagle nests in 67 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
Vilas and Oneida counties led the way with 144 and 134 nests, and the number of nests continues to increase in the southern, eastern and west central parts of the state.
A second round of DNR surveys to determine how many eaglets had hatched counted 1,057 nestlings for a 63 percent success rate, the 2013 report shows.
Many of these immature eagles hatched in 2013 could be among the big groups of eagles people will see this winter, Lapin says. There may also be adult eagles that typically breed in northern Minnesota and Ontario in the summer and winter in Wisconsin in search of open water.
The eagles wintering along the Fox River tend to be local Green Bay eagles. Green Bay is not on the migratory path of bald eagles that nest in northern Minnesota and Ontario. Eagle numbers there have also increased steadily over the past 20-30 years.
DNR wildlife technician Steve Easterly 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.
Wherever people see bald eagles in Wisconsin this winter, Lapin encourages prospective eagle watchers to keep their distance from the eagles to avoid disturbing them. Staying in their car to watch the eagles is the best approach, Lapin says.
“The eagles are at a critical point in the winter so it's best not to make them use their energy with unnecessary movements,” she says. “Enjoy their majesty and aerial exploits, but always be aware of their well-being.”