A bald eagle carries a small fish in its talons and leaves a mark behind on the Wisconsin River near Sauk City.

A bald eagle carries a small fish in its talons and leaves a mark behind on the Wisconsin River near Sauk City. Photo By Journal Sentinel Files

Abundance of eagles helps festivals on Wisconsin River this winter

Open water draws national bird

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John Keefe has been eagle watching in the Sauk City region of Wisconsin for nearly 25 years, but each sighting still conjures a word that seems to be invariably attached to eagles: majestic.

"There's never a lack of fascination when you see an eagle soaring down or up the river, or even just perching in the tree. They're just a majestic bird," said Keefe, president of the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, a local organization dedicated to protecting, enhancing and maintaining bald eagle habitat in the area.

There is certainly something special about seeing our national bird in the wild, perhaps magnified by the fact that such sightings were rare 50 years ago.

Today, Sauk City and Prairie du Sac — collectively known as Sauk Prairie — and surrounding areas along the Wisconsin River are home to a large concentration of eagles during the winter months, celebrated for the last 25 years at the city's annual Eagle Watching Days.

I've spotted my share of eagles, but I still drop everything and crane my neck every time someone shouts, "An eagle!" with a finger pointed to the sky.

The distinctive white-capped head held high, feathered wings spread across 6 feet of the sky, yellow talons poised for the day's catch — it's nature at its finest.

I was lucky to grow up in Wisconsin during a time when such sightings were, if not common, at least not rare.

Thanks to efforts by environmentalists such as Waukesha native Chuck Sindelar that led to the protection of eagle habitats and the banning of DDT in the '70s, bald eagle populations soared from just 108 occupied nests in Wisconsin in 1973 to 1,343 in 2013, the highest number ever recorded.

While territorial during breeding season in the spring and summer, eagles stick together in the winter, congregating in roosting spots near open water.

That means rivers such as the Wisconsin, Mississippi and Fox, especially in areas around dams where the constantly moving water does not freeze. The Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, in fact, have the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the contiguous United States.

"Open water means a source of food — fish — for eagles," said Keefe, who added that the Sauk Prairie area has plenty of that, thanks to a hydroelectric dam, as well as two other elements crucial for bald eagle survival: roosting areas and trees for perching high above the river.

"Rather than going after and chasing the food, they sit there and conserve their energy and wait for the food to come along to them," he said.

This winter has been especially good for eagle watching.

"The amount of open water is limited because it's been so cold, so the eagles are really concentrated as they search for fish," said Carly Lapin, a conservation biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, in an update from the department. "It will be easier for people to see them and there should be some great viewing opportunities in many parts of Wisconsin."

Keefe and other volunteers with the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council conduct biweekly surveys of eagles in the area at 10 roosting spots — hollowed-out areas in the sides of bluffs along the river where eagles congregate. The Dec. 29 count revealed nearly 400 eagles, a good sign for the upcoming Eagle Days.

What to expect: Hosted by the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council, the South Prairie Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tripp Heritage Museum and the DNR's Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, the festival, held Friday and Saturday, includes indoor and outdoor opportunities for seeing and learning more about bald eagles.

In addition to bus viewing tours on Saturday, Keefe said that one of the most popular events is an eagle release that day. Marge Gibson of Antigo's Raptor Education Group will release a couple of rehabilitated eagles at the VFW Park in Prairie du Sac at 1 p.m. More than 1,500 people attended the release last year, so Keefe encourages visitors to arrive early and be patient.

Other events include live birds of prey shows — featuring eagles, owls, falcons and hawks — and an entertaining animal show for the whole family by naturalist and humorist David Stokes. All events are free.

Where to look: To explore on your own, head to the overlook in Prairie du Sac two blocks south of Highway 78 on Water St., where the council has spotting scopes for viewing eagles across the river and around Eagle Island.

You can also head to the dam north of Prairie du Sac. Follow Water St. north to Dam Road, less than a mile outside town. Turn east and follow the signs to the dam.

Look for eagles perched high on trees, soaring over the river, or tucked into hollow areas in the bluffs.

While adults are easy enough to identify, juvenile bald eagles are more challenging to distinguish from other birds. The birds don't develop their distinctive white heads until they are 4 or 5 years old, so young birds are usually very dark and develop more white coloring as they get older.

Outside of the overlook viewing area, Keefe advises visitors to stay in their cars when looking for eagles so the birds don't get spooked and fly away without finding food.

"The eagles are at a critical point in the winter, so it's best not to make them use their energy with unnecessary movements," said the DNR's Lapin. "Enjoy their majesty and aerial exploits, but always be aware of their well-being."

More eagle watching: If you miss Eagle Days, don't worry.

"The good news for those who don't like crowds is the eagle season is throughout January, and they can come any time and see eagles on the river," Keefe said, adding that the birds usually return to their spring and summer homes by the end of February.

The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council hosts regular bus tours on Saturdays in January; $5 donations are recommended for the tours. Volunteers also staff the overlook area on those days to answer visitors' questions.

Other cities around the state also host festivals dedicated to our national bird. Check out Eagles on Ice in Alma on Jan. 18; Eagle Days at Kaukauna's 1000 Islands Environmental Center on Jan. 25; Bald Eagle Days in Cassville on Jan. 25 and 26; Bald Eagle Appreciation Days in Prairie du Chien Feb. 21-22; and Eagle Day in Ferryville on March 1.

Getting there: Sauk Prairie is about 100 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highways 19 and 12.

More information: For more on Eagle Days, see the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council website.

For more about bald eagle watching in Wisconsin, see the DNR website.

Day Out features day trips within a two-hour drive of the Milwaukee area.

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